Monthly Archives: March 2019

The Book Whisperer Looks Ahead


As an avid reader, I frequently read about books, check reviews, and otherwise seek books to read and to recommend. I read eclectically and choose from fiction for adults as well as YA and juvenile books, along with the occasional nonfiction. My to be read list continues to grow. Some of the books that currently have my attention and that are on the list are found in this blog.


The Last Equation of Isaac Severy by Nova Jacobs promises to be a riveting read. It involves a mystery and a bookstore. What more could a book lover choose? Some readers might be put off by the addition of mathematics to the story. Isaac, mathematician, dies and the death is ruled a suicide. However, Hazel, his adopted granddaughter, receives a letter from Isaac in the mail a few days after his death. Isaac gives Hazel specific instructions to give the letter to one of Isaac’s colleagues. Before she can deliver the letter, however, she must discover a “bombshell equation” Isaac has uncovered. Hazel must put her powers of observation and careful thought to work to uncover the equation to avoid disaster to her family.


Jamil Jan Kochai has written 99 Nights in Logar with twelve-year-old Marwand as the main character. Marwand has visited Afghanistan six years earlier and now he is going to be living there. The stories from the Arabian Nights come to mind since Marwand must search for his family’s dog, Budabash, which has escaped. The quest to locate Budabash takes ninety-nine nights.

In The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin, another twelve-year old, Suzy Swanson, must come to terms with the loss of her best friend who has drowned in the ocean while on vacation shortly before school begins again. The two should both be entering seventh grade. They have been close friends since they were five and in a swimming class together. Franny, Suzy knows, is an excellent swimmer, so how could she have drowned? On a school trip to an aquarium, Suzy visits the jellyfish exhibit and reads about dangerous jellyfish stings. Irukandji jellyfish, the most dangerous venomous jellyfish lives off the coast of Australia. However, it has begun migrating into other waters. As Suzy reads about the jellyfish, she wonders if Franny could have been stung by an Irukandji jellyfish, thus causing her to die, but the death appears as a drowning. Suzy begins an investigation into the jellyfish to see if Franny’s death has been caused by the poison instead of drowning. To add to Suzy’s sorry, she and Franny have had a falling out not long before Franny’s death, so Suzy thinks she is to blame for her best friend’s death.


On quite another note, Soniah Kamal has written a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice and set it in Pakistan. Alys Binat has decided she will not marry. That promise to herself is all well and good until she meets Mr. Darsee at a wedding, of course. Unmarriageable recounts the story of the Binat family’s five daughters with Alys being the most practical of the girls. Alys is teaching English literature in a girls’ school. Alys focuses on Jane Austen and other literary heroes in hopes of inspiring her students to dream of more than an early marriage and children. Can Alys stick to her plan or does she succumb to Mr. Darsee’s charms?


When I can find excerpts to read of new books, I often then become hooked on finding the book so I can read the whole story. That happened with The Peacock Feast by Lisa Gornick. Gornick has developed a story about the multigenerational O’Connor family. Grace, Prudence’s niece, visits Prudence and thus begins the unscrambling of family secrets including the long estrangement between Prudence and her brother who is now deceased.


After reading about A State of Freedom by Neel Mukherjee, I immediately requested the novel from the library. Mukherjee has received a great deal of praise for writing about “the central, defining events of our century: displacement and migration.” Taking five characters of vastly different backgrounds, Mukherjee has developed a story set in contemporary India and told through various narratives. The characters even include a vagrant and his dancing bear. Who could not wish to at least dip into A State of Freedom?


Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce keeps appearing in lists and articles about books. The story takes place in London in 1940. Emmeline Lake wishes to be a journalist. When she sees an advertisement seeking a columnist for the London Evening Chronicle, she thinks she has found her dream job. Instead of being a war correspondent, however, Emmeline lands the job of typist for Mrs. Bird, an advice columnist. Mrs. Bird says all letters containing any unpleasantness must be thrown away. Emmeline becomes intrigued with such letters and begins answering them herself on her own, much without Mrs. Bird’s knowledge.


Finally, a memoir called The Little Bookshop of Big Stone Gap: A Memoir of Friendship, Community, and the Uncommon Pleasure of a Good book by Wendy Welch caught my eye. The last part of the subtitle, the uncommon pleasure of a good book, could hardly be ignored. In her true story, Welch writes about the bookstore she and her husband opened in a small Appalachian coal town. Because of their love of books and their dream of finding a place of their own, they succeed despite many odds against them: a declining US economy, a small town with no industry, and e-books.

Many books, many stories, many choices!



The Book Whisperer Takes a Look Inside North Korea


Suki Kim explains that her book Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among Some of North Korea’s Elite is “literary nonfiction based on investigative reporting…. The book is not based on memories to explain my life, but based on undercover investigative journalism to convey the psychology of North Korea’s future leaders and their very complex and human and inhumane world, seen through my eyes. Those who expect a straightforward reporter’s nonfiction, this is not. Those who expect a memoir about a woman’s self-discovery, this is not.”

She clarifies further in the prologue:

“Time there seemed to pass differently. When you are shut off from the world, every day is exactly the same as the one before. This sameness has a way of wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark. The emptiness runs deep, deeper with each slowing day, and you become increasingly invisible and inconsequential.”

These explanations give readers the clear insight they need to understand Without You, There Is No Us.  Kim Jong-il is known as “Dear Leader” to distinguish him from his father Kim il-sung, “Great Leader.” The current supreme leader is Kim Jong Un, “Outstanding Leader.” Suki Kim’s students praise the leaders, past and present with gratitude for giving them the greatest country on earth. Songs, TV shows, and articles are all about the leaders and admiration for them.

The fact is that many people in North Korea are starving. Electricity is unreliable and can go off unexpectedly and remain off for some time. People know only what Kim Jong-Un wishes them to know.

Kim describes the constant surveillance she and the other foreign teachers are under. They all have minders who monitor their classes and their free time as well. All of the students watch the teachers, but one particular student is known to be ready to report any infractions. Then Kim learns yet a second student in each class is a watchful observer ready to report as well. All lessons must be approved ahead of time and no deviation must be made once the approval is given. Kim writes that “the constant surveillance by the counterparts and minders evoked fear in us. We knew that the consequences were unthinkable, so we did what we were told.”

The first picture below shows Kim in her classroom. Now, of course, Kim Jong-Un’s picture is hanging alongside the pictures of his father and grandfather. The second picture shows students gathered outside following an exam.

The teachers must not say anything that sounds as if they are “boasting about America.” That means that Kim remains guarded in answering her students’ questions. When she mentions that she backpacked across Europe as a college student, the students’ faces close down and they become silent as if they do not believe her. They cannot travel freely in their own country much less travel outside the country.

The teachers may go on planned trips, but they must pay for the use of the bus, gas, and admission to any attractions. These trips must be planned far in advance as well.

Teachers are guarded in their communication with their families. They do have access to email, but the emails are monitored. Kim set up a special email to use in communicating with friends and family outside of North Korea. Readers can easily see why Kim describes the life in North Korea as “wearing down your soul until you become nothing but a breathing, toiling, consuming thing that awakes to the sun and sleeps at the dawning of the dark.”

Kim, like Hyeonseo Lee, describes the weekly confessions for students. After a fashion, the foreign teachers also had confessions, but that is because most of the teachers are religious. The school cannot proselytize, have students read the Bible or otherwise discuss Christianity, but the founders of Pyongyang University of Sciences and Technology (PUST) hope that by providing the free education that if the regime relaxes its views on religion, the founders of PUST will have an opportunity to speak freely about religion in North Korea. Their hopes are most likely ill-founded. Suki Kim has not professed that she is religious or that her reasons for teaching at the college are only to find out more about North Korea. No one has questioned her either.

Kim describes a number of unusual actions that she observes in North Korea. For example, on an outing to the International Friendship Exhibition Hall, she and her fellow teachers ate lunch at the Hyangsan Hotel in Pyongyang. She notices “five or six women squatting and cutting the grass with scissors.” Other odd actions included seeing peasants in the countryside gathered on the roadways, sitting, talking, and eating together. Kim realizes the pavement represents their town square or café, a place where they can gather.

The food served in the cafeteria is almost inedible. Teachers have been told to bring food with them such as dried fruits and canned foods. They even bring their own toilet paper. They are allowed to take supervised shopping trips to the markets where most of the items are from China.

Kim records a conversation with a fellow teacher:

“There’s no freedom. They are watching us constantly. I know they are recording everything we say and keeping files on us, and I feel really bad all the time. I just don’t feel comfortable here. It’s not about the terrible food and the material lack of everything. It’s the basic humanity. It’s missing here.”

That observation sums up the experience of living in North Korea. On the other hand, Kim does speak lovingly of her students as she describes them. After spending six months teaching the young men, she has come to love them and hope for their futures, but she knows even as the elite, they will live restricted lives.

Suki Kim’s Web site provides additional insight into her experience of teaching at PUST in North Korea: On the site, Kim has included a bio, photo album of pictures from North Korea, and her TED Talk along with other videos.



The Book Whisperer Believes in Fairies


The Kirkus review of The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor begins with a single line: “A woman inherits a bookstore and discovers her family’s connection to a famous set of photographs.” The photographs are from 1917 made by Frances Griffiths, 9, and her cousin Elsie Wright, 16 of fairies in their Cottingley back garden. Frances and her mother have come to live with her mother’s sister and family while Frances’s father is fighting in WWI. They had lived all of Frances’s life in Cape Town, South Africa, so moving to England in the winter and being without her dad has left Frances sad and torn. The photographs became famous with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle becoming interested in them.

The Cottingley Secret takes place in Cottingley, England, and in Howth, Ireland, the village where Olivia Kavanagh has grown up living with her maternal grandparents following her mother’s death in an accident. Now, Olivia’s beloved grandfather has died and left her Something Old, his bookshop of rare and antique books. Nana, her grandmother, suffers from Alzheimer’s and lives in St. Bridget’s, a care home. Olivia has come back to Howth from London where she has a job as a book restorer and where her fiancé Jack is to settle her grandfather’s estate and make sure her grandmother is receiving proper care.

In going through her grandfather’s papers, Olivia discovers a book written by Frances Griffiths about her life and about the pictures of the fairies. Olivia cannot understand the connection between her grandparents and Frances. Even gentle prodding of her grandmother’s memory rarely provides any insight. Still, Olivia tries to piece together the story by reading from the book to her grandmother.

Olivia has too many doubts about marrying Jack and she has to settle the financial affairs of the bookshop as well as make sure her grandmother has good care. Instead of returning to London after her grandfather’s funeral as Jack expects, Olivia begins the task of updating the bookshop and of creating a Web site where she can sell the rare and antique books her grandfather has collected. He did not believe in modern technology, but Olivia knows that for the store to survive and thrive, she must create the Web site. She decides she would like to purchase or rent the building next door to Something Old where she could sell new books.

In order to put Something Old on financially good footing and pay the bills at St. Bridget’s Olivia discovers she must sell the cottage where she had lived with her grandparents. At first, she is reluctant because the home means a great deal to her. She realizes though that selling the cottage will make the difference in the finances that she needs. She will live in a small apartment above Something Old.

Gaynor intermingles the two stories, bringing Olivia closer and closer to understanding why her grandparents would have a copy of Frances Griffiths’s memoir. While digging through old papers and reading the memoir, Olivia also wrestles with what to do about her engagement to Jack. She realizes more and more each day that she means little to Jack except as an ornament, the right wife for an up and coming executive. The nagging details about the wedding mean nothing to her; she resents the phone calls from the wedding planner about the details. In exasperation, Olivia throws her phone into the water and turns away from Jack and the wedding plans.

The photographs of the fairies did capture a great deal of interest in 1920. After Edward Gardner, a well-known man of society, discovered the photographs, he shared them with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who wanted to see the place where the photographs were taken and he met both Frances and Elsie. Gardner also asked Harold Snelling, a photography expert, to authenticate the photographs. Snelling told Gardner that “the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs.” That’s true in that they were real photographs, just not real fairies.

Hazel Gaynor has written seven books. She wrote an epistolary novel, The Last Christmas in Paris, with Heather Webb. They wrote the letters to create the book without having met in person. After they had finished writing the book, they met one another and have become fast friends. Gaynor is one of the authors of Fall of Poppies, Stories of Love and the Great War. Other contributors to Fall of Poppies include Jennifer Robson, Heather Webb, and Beatriz Williams, among others. Gaynor’s most recent book is The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter.

Gaynor maintains an extensive Web site at this link:

The Book Whisperer Enjoys Dreyer’s English


Praise for Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English is easily found. Newsday says that “Dreyer can help you…with tips on punctuation and spelling…. Even better: He’ll entertain you while he’s at it.” Now, when has one, dear Reader, ever seen such a statement about an English handbook or style book? Publisher’s Weekly in its starred review calls Dreyer’s English “that rare writing handbook that writers might actually want to read straight through, rather than simply consult.”

Benjamin Dreyer is copy chief at Random House. He published Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style in 2019.

In Chapter 1, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose),” Dreyer challenges writers to refrain from using the following words in their writing for one week: very, rather, really, quite, and in fact.” However, he does not stop there. He continues with just meaning merely and so as an intensifier, pretty, of course, and surely among other widely and over-used words and expressions. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s advice: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” For those of us who are our own editors, we should remove damn in our revising.

As one tempted to use too many exclamation marks in informal, personal emails and personal letters, I enjoyed Dreyer’s discussion of exclamation marks covered in Chapter 3, “Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation.” Dreyer says to “go light on the exclamation points. When overused, they’re bossy, hectoring, and ultimately, wearying.” I remember a student in my Honors Comp I class who told me her third-grade son told her she needed to use more exclamation marks in her writing to jazz it up. She and I concluded that she would ignore that sage advice for purposes of writing essays in Comp I and II.

Dreyer also covers semicolons in Chapter 3. He begins that sub-heading with the sample sentence “I love semicolons like I love pizza; fried port dumplings; Venice, Italy; and the operas of Puccini.” Then he follows with an explanation of why he used semicolons in the sentence as well as giving several alternate versions of the sentence without the semicolons.

Chapter 8, “peeves and Crotchets” may well be my favorite chapter. That chapter begins with this sentence: “I’ve never met a writer or other word person who didn’t possess a pocketful of language peeves and crotchets — words or uses of words that drive a normally reasonable person into unreasonable fits of pique, if not paroxysms of rage—and I doubt I’d trust anyone who denied having a few of these bugaboos stashed away somewhere.” As an English prof, I had my share of peeves and crotchets and they remain with me even in retirement. Read Chapter 8 to discover Dreyer’s own peeves and crochets.

Another favorite chapter is number 10, “The Confusables.” Dreyer explains that spell check offers writers help, but it cannot detect the wrong word. The first words he tackles in Chapter 10 are a lot/allot, allotted, allotting. I spent countless hours reminding students how to use these words properly. I agree with his assessment of using alright rather than all right. Dreyer explains “I continue to crinkle my nose at the sight of it, perhaps because I can’t see that it has a worthwhile enough distinction from all right to justify its existence.” He does go on to report that others may differ with him.

Dreyer provides additional resources for the thoughtful writer. He likes “Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, one of the charmingest, smartest, most readable books on the subject of language I’ve ever seen.” He also recommends several Web sites:,,, and among others.

Borrow or buy a copy of Dreyer’s English. You will be charmed by this English handbook and learn from it as well.



The Book Whisperer Reviews Anissa Gray’s Debut Novel


Readers familiar with An American Marriage by Tayari Jones will find familiarity in The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray. The story opens with Althea and Proctor Cochran, reputedly successful restaurant and grocery owners, being arrested for fraud. With Althea and Proctor in jail awaiting trial, the care of their fraternal twin daughters Kim and Baby Vi to family, mirroring another family tragedy early in Althea’s life.

At twelve, Althea becomes surrogate mother to her younger siblings, Viola, Lillian, and Joe Butler when their mother dies of cancer. Their father, a traveling evangelist, often leaves for weeks at a time, so Althea is father and mother to the younger children. When the father is home, he is abusive and violent with his children.

When Althea is nineteen, she leaves her childhood home and responsibilities to marry Procter Cochran, her childhood friend. Her father’s parting words to her are “you think you’ve got it all figured out. Don’t come running back her or to the Lord when you find out you don’t.”

With Althea and Proctor in jail, Lillian, the youngest child becomes caretaker for Kim and Baby Vi. Lillian has moved home to New River Junction, MI, from NYC a few years earlier, following her divorce from Sam and then his subsequent death in a car accident. Lillian has already become caretaker for Nai Nai, Sam’s elderly grandmother. Lillian and Nai Nai live in the house where she and her siblings grew up, but she has had the home extensively renovated since her father’s death.

As with all families, the stories are complicated. The ravenously hungry girls include all of the women in the story in one way or another: Nai Nai, Althea, Viola, Lillian, Kim, and Baby Vi. At twelve, Althea certainly was not prepared to become mother to her siblings. She does the best she can, especially in her father’s absence.

Gray spools out the story by allowing the three sisters to speak, describing the events and trying to understand both the past and the present. Occasionally, Proctor has an opportunity to weigh in through letters he writes to Althea. Currently, they are being held on different floors of the same jail, but they will soon be sent to separate prisons to serve out their years.

By giving readers perspective from each woman’s point of view, Gray has provided a complete story, filling in gaps that one narrator would have omitted because she would not have known the full story.

Obviously, the family is in upheaval with the arrests. Then Kim, an already troubled teen, continues to cause trouble, being put into detention at school and being surly and uncooperative at home. Meanwhile, Baby Vi simply becomes more and more withdrawn. Viola, a therapist, lives in Chicago with her wife Eva. However, their marriage is floundering and Viola has returned to binging and purging as a way of coping.

When Viola comes home to New River Junction to try to help the family, all the old wounds begin to fester. The sisters must come to terms with the past in order to sort out the present. The secrets of the past must be exposed in order for all of the family to move forward.

Anissa Gray grew up in western Michigan and has a master’s in English from New York University. She worked for Reuters in Manhattan, reporting on global financial news. Later, she lived in Atlanta where she worked for CNN as writer, editor, and producer. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls is Gray’s first novel after twenty years as a reporter.

Anissa Gray’s Web site gives further information:


The Book Whisperer Discovers a Winner


Often, I must admit, if a book or movie receives a great deal of hype, I am disinclined to read the book or see the movie. I realize this perverseness on my part is irrational and sometimes quite silly. Still, the prejudice exists and persists. Occasionally, I change my mind and read the book or see the movie that I had hitherto disdained. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens fell into that perverse category at first. Then my friend and fellow reader Sue told me she was reading the book and could hardly put it down. Her recommendation piqued my interest. Still, the book had nearly 200 holds on it at the library, so getting it from the library would be difficult.

At the February Beyond the Book meeting at the South Broken Arrow Library, though, I discovered, our leader had chosen Where the Crawdads Sing as our March book for the club and she had pulled enough copies for our small group. Two of our members had already read the book and both proclaimed it worthy of reading, so two more readers whose opinion I respect recommended Where the Crawdads Sing. Of course, at this point, I have the book in hand and I want to read it for the discussion in March.

I did some research on Delia Owens and discovered “her close relationships with girlfriends have stayed with her all her life.” In fact, Owens dedicates Where the Crawdads Sing to three friends she’s known since second grade. Having grown up in a small town myself and having close relationships with longtime friends from elementary and high school, I could identify with Owens. Thus, I have another reason to read Where the Crawdads Sing.

Previously, Owens has written nonfiction; she published Secrets of the Savanna, Eye of the Elephant, and Cry of the Kalahari. These books reflect her life in Africa completing scientific research on lions and elephants. Where the Crawdads Sing represents her first foray into fiction.

Where the Crawdads Sing opens with Kya watching her mother walk away from the shack where the family lives in the marshy wilds of South Carolina. At ten, Kya believes first that her mother will turn and wave before she is out of sight because she must be just going to the store and second that her mother will return. Neither of those things happens, though. Kya realizes that her mother is wearing her favorite dress shoes and is carrying a small bag, so Kya understands her mother is not coming back even though Kya continues to hope.

Kya’s father is an abusive drunk who is often absent for days at a time, only to return in a drunken rage and beat Kya’s mother and any of the children who fail to stay out of his way. When the older children realize their mother has gone for good, they slowly drift away, leaving Jodie, seven years older than Kya, the youngest, and their drunken father. Then one day, Jodie, too, disappears. Kya is completely alone for much of the time since her father certainly does not change his ways.

Kya washes the clothes and keeps the shack neat in hopes of staving off her father’s rage. She cooks what she can, mostly grits. Sometimes she eats saltine crackers covered with lard, her only bits of food. Her father will leave a few dollars for food. Kya does not know how to count or to read. She relies on the cashier at the grocery store to give her the correct change. Little does Kya know that cashier often slips extra change into Kya’s hand and reimburses the cash register from her own pocket.

After a time, Kya realizes she has not seen her father in some time. She has no money and little food left. She decides to dig mussels and sell them to Jumpin’, the Black man who runs a small marina and convenience store. She can take her dad’s boat to the marina. Jumpin’ is a kind man and he helps Kya as much as he can. He even buys badly smoked fish from Kya to help her. He tells Mabel, his wife, about Kya. Jumpin’ and Mabel do all they can to help Kya survive. Mabel gives her clothes and warm hugs. Jumpin’ buys the mussels and smoked fish as often as he can.

No one else in Barkley Cove offers to help Kya in the least. Jumpin’ and Mabel’s kindnesses are the only ones she can count on.

The townspeople of Barkley Cove call Kya the Marsh Girl. Young teenagers go into the marsh looking for her shack. They tell stories of her, all untrue. Only one person in town, Tate, cares about Kya as a human being. He leaves her a present of a feather and they begin exchanging gifts from the marsh. When Tate leaves Kya a note, she finally stays on the beach when he docks his boat. She tells Tate she cannot read his note.

At that point, Tate, who has been watching Kya for years, tells her he will teach her to read. He gives Kya books, starting simply at first. Kya is bright and catches on quickly. She reads to herself in the shack at night after Tate has left. She has always collected shells and feathers and can draw and paint. Her mother was a talented artist, and Kya has a gift as well.

Soon, Tate is giving Kya books on chemistry and natural history. With each advancement in her reading, Kya becomes more interested in learning about the marsh and its inhabitants. She even becomes brave enough to take her boat to Sea Oaks, ten miles from Barkley Cove and asked the librarian there for The Principles of Organic Chemistry by Geissman, Invertebrate Zoology of the Coastal Marsh by Jones, and Fundamentals of Ecology by Odum.

Kya relies on Tate for companionship and learning. He appears to care for her in the way that no one else has ever done. Then he goes away to college, though promising he will be back to see her often. He breaks his promise and Kya holds a deep grudge because she has come to depend upon his visits. When Chase Andrews, local football hero and bad boy, sights Kya, he determines he will have her. He woos her when she is vulnerable after losing Tate’s company. Chase promises Kya a life with him in a home and with other people.

Readers know that Chase is a player, not to be believed, but Kya is innocent and wants very much to believe he means what he promises. She is also extremely lonely and at fifteen wishes to believe she can be part of a community. When she reads of Chase’s engagement in the local paper, she feels betrayed all over again and becomes angry with herself for allowing herself to be vulnerable.

By this time, though, Kya has been sending, at Tate’s suggestion, her drawings of marsh wildlife, both flora and fauna, to a publisher. Her work has been published in a book and the publisher wants more. The money Kya receives allows her to improve her shack on the inside, but she keeps it the same unpainted boards on the outside. She has a bathroom and lights installed along with a cookstove and refrigerator, but she still keeps the old wood stove because it reminds her of her mother.

Kya has created a life for herself despite being abandoned by her entire family. Reading continues to be a joy for her along with learning more and more about the wildlife around her. Her own drawings help her by bringing in a steady income. After much cajoling, she agrees to meet her editor in Greenville, going by bus to stay for two days in October.

When Kya returns home, she learns Chase has been murdered. Not much later, the sheriff arrests Kya for Chase’s murder in spite of the fact that numerous upstanding citizens have seen her get on the bus and return two days later. Still, Kya is kept in the Barkley Cove jail and feels very much like a caged animal. Her trial is gripping and readers wonder if she will be acquitted or sentenced to death.

In Kya’s corner are Mabel and Jumpin’, Tate, and Jodie, her older brother who has reentered Kya’s life. Kya’s attorney does all he can to help her. Then both attorneys give their closing arguments and the jury has Kya’s life in their hands. What will the jury decide?

Where the Crawdads Sing is a mesmerizing novel. It kept me going, sometimes holding my breath as I waited to see what would happen next. I wanted to warn Kya about Chase and how much trouble he could be! Tate, Jumpin’, and Mabel are Kya’s true friends.

Delia Owens has a robust Web site:

The Book Whisperer Recommends The Pocket Muse


Having taught Freshman Composition 1113 and 1213 and other comp courses for years, I have many writing prompts saved. Although I am retired, I still read about writing and I write a blog, emails, and letters. Then along with some friends, we formed Raindrop Conversations, an informal group of women who meet weekly to help some of our young Turkish friends improve their English. In that group, I provide short writing assignments which everyone in the group completes (usually); we share what we have written by reading aloud.

Because we write and then read the material aloud, we are also working on pronunciation and meaning of words. As a result of creating these assignments weekly, I look for interesting, intriguing, and useful prompts among my stored ideas and on the Internet. When I discovered Monica Wood’s The Pocket Muse: Ideas & Inspirations for Writing, I purchased it, looking for new prompts.

Monica Wood writes novels, plays, essays, and books about writing. Her Web site is extensive and stimulating: There, readers will find information about Wood’s books as well as “Books for Teachers” and “Tips for Writers.”

In reading through “Tips for Writers,” I was intrigued by advice she got from an interview she read with Richard Russo: “He explained that a writer can’t do it all at once. If it’s Monday, you just do your Monday work.” That’s good advice about many tasks one may have. Just do today’s work, writing, chore and then tomorrow, tackle the next job.

On Amazon, The Pocket Muse is described as “your key to finding inspiration when and where you want it. With hundreds of thought-provoking prompts, exercises and illustrations.” While Ms. Wood may have intended the book as inspiration to aspiring fiction writers, The Pocket Muse also contains useful prompts for anyone who simply needs a bit of inspiration to get started writing.

Wood explains that “for years now, I’ve been keeping what I call a word notebook.” In the small spiral notebook, she keeps lists of words. She emphasizes that these are not phrases or quotations, but single words. Then she can refer to the notebook to find words that have interested her or that she has looked up or that she simply liked. I have used a similar exercise, but with a bit of a twist. I have given students five words and asked them to use the five in a paragraph that makes sense. Writers could keep their own lists and refer to them for ideas.

Wood has included pictures throughout the book. The pictures themselves can help writers conjure up ideas. Included with the pictures is a prompt, but one could say there are two prompts: the words and picture and the picture alone. For example, on one page, we have a picture of an old-fashioned door knob showing the keyhole below the knob. The prompt is “write about the worst visitor who ever darkened your door.” However, a writer could choose to write about a room behind that doorknob or about a lost key that fit into the keyhole. Or?


The Pocket Muse gives writers a bit of a jump start in writing when they may feel in a slump. The ideas are fresh and fun. If one doesn’t work on a certain day, it might be just the spark the writer needs on another day. In short, The Pocket Muse is a good writers’ companion.

Wood’s last line in The Pocket Muse: “Don’t forget to be grateful that you love words.”



The Book Whisperer Reviews a Favorite!


Alan Bradley has written ten books featuring Flavia de Luce, a young lady interested in chemistry and solving murders. Through the ten books, fans have come to know Flavia, her father, her sisters Daffy and Feely, Mrs. Mullet, the housekeeper, and most importantly, Dogger. Of course, we must mention Cynthia, the vicar’s wife, and Inspector Hewitt of the local constabulary.

The Seattle Times describes Flavia as “the world’s greatest adolescent British chemist/busybody/sleuth.” The Wall Street Journal calls Bradley’s mysteries “delightful…. The mysteries in Mr. Bradley’s books are engaging, but the real lure is Ms. de Luce, the irreverent youngster.”

Bradley has a robust body of work; his most famous and most widely read books are those in which Flavia shines. On the radio, Bradley’s wife heard Louise Penny, delightful mystery author, describing the Debut Dagger fiction competition. To enter, writers had to submit the first chapter and a synopsis of a murder mystery. Bradley’s wife persuaded him to write about “the girl on the camp stool” who was a minor character in a novel Bradley was writing.

Bradley won the Debut Dagger award and thus his first book in the Flavia series was born: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Interest has continued to grow in Flavia’s adventures and the books now number ten. The latest book is The Golden Tresses of the Dead. The Golden Tresses of the Dead opens with Feely’s marriage to Dieter, the former German POW. Readers will remember that Mr. de Luce has died, leaving the three girls living in Buckshaw which now belongs solely to Flavia.

Mrs. Mullet continues as cook and housekeeper, always dispensing her wisdom. Mrs. Mullet knowledge is limited, but she shares it. She tells Flavia “Miss Daphne says she doesn’t want her tea. She’s got ‘er nose stuck in a book. Useless, I think it’s called, by some woman named Joyce.” Flavia and Dogger have formed a partnership as PIs: Arthur W. Dogger & Associates. In The Golden Tresses of the Dead, Dogger and Flavia have their first client, Mrs. Prill who asks them to find some purloined letters.

A number of other people figure in the story. Miss Pursemaker and Miss Stonebrook are missionaries just returned from Africa. They stay briefly with Mrs. Prill before Cynthia, the vicar’s wife, asks Flavia to put them up at Buckshaw until they give their lecture on disease in Africa which will take place at the church.

As Flavia and Dogger investigate the missing letters, they first visit Dr. Brocken, Mrs. Prill’s father. Dr. Brocken has made his fortune making and selling homeopathic medicines, particularly those made with balsam. He now resides in Gollingford Abbey, a nursing home, supposedly suffering from dementia. After meeting with Dr. Brocken, Dogger and Flavia decide to visit Mrs. Prill in her home.

Dear Readers, what do they find when they arrive at Mrs. Prill’s grand home? Why, of course, Mrs. Prill is dead, sitting at her kitchen table with a cup of coffee in front of her.

Now, who has killed Mrs. Prill and why? Why does Dr. Brocken feign dementia? What role do Miss Pursemaker and Miss Stonebrook play? And don’t forget about the finger found in Feely’s wedding cake. To whom did it belong and why is it in the cake?

Since The Golden Tresses of the Dead is a mystery, readers must read the book to discover how these characters come together and why they are involved in the murder. Suffice it to say that readers will not be disappointed with Bradley’s latest Flavia escapade as Flavia and Dogger become true partners in their investigations.

Bradley’s Web site is a bit out of date, but readers will find some useful information there:

The Book Whisperer Recommends The One-in-a-Million Boy


After reading The Guardian’s article “Up Lit: The New Book Trend With Kindness at is Core,”, I began researching books in the genre. The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood came recommended as both a good read and an example of Up Lit. After wrestling with Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, a book for a book club that meets soon, I turned to Wood’s book for a pick-me-up. I have never given up on a book chosen for a book club until now, but give up, I did, on The Orphan Master’s Son.

Thus, turning to an Up Lit choice gave me a boost. The One-in-a-Million Boy turned out to be just the right book to take the bad taste of Johnson’s book away. In “Q&A With Monica Wood,” Wood says, “I write about assembling families out of broken parts.” She certainly does that in The One-in-a-Million Boy. Watch and listen to the full interview at this link:

The One-in-a-Million Boy begins with Quinn Porter, 42, a guitar player, going to Ona Vitkus’ home to do routine chores for the 104-year-old woman. Quinn’s son, age 11, has been going to Ona’s every Saturday to do chores in order to earn a Boy Scout badge. On page two of the book, readers learn the boy has died a few weeks prior to Quinn’s arrival at Ona’s home. Belle, the boy’s grief-stricken mother, and twice divorced from Quinn, the boy’s father, has sent Quinn to complete the work that their son had engaged to do for Ona.

Ona does not know the boy is dead and Quinn does not tell her; he simply says he has come to do the work his son has promised. Ona feels annoyed that the boy has not come himself, but she reluctantly agrees that Quinn can do the chores. Quinn is equally reluctant to be at Ona’s, but Belle, his former wife and the boy’s mother, has guilt-tripped Quinn.

Quinn is not “a deadbeat dad, but an absent one,” according to Wood. His guitar-playing gigs keep him on the road and away from home too much. Belle divorces Quinn for that reason—twice. After the first divorce, Belle decides to try the marriage again for the sake of their son, but she tells Quinn she wants a husband at home with her and their son. Quinn does what he considers his best, sending money and seeing his son on occasion.

When the boy, who is nameless in the story, dies of a one-in-a-million previously undetected heart condition, Belle is so grief-stricken she can hardly move. Quinn, too, is heartbroken, but he punishes himself by holding his grief in check since he believes he has not earned the right to grieve for his son.

Although the boy has died before the story opens, we learn a great deal about him. He is obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records. He can quote many, many records. He decides that Ona should seek the record of oldest living person in the world. Then the two of them discover a number of elderly people older than Ona by as much as 16 years. Then the boy decides she should go for the record of oldest living licensed driver. But first, she will have to regain her license since she lost it at age 100 when her doctor took it away.

After the boy completes his chores at Ona’s, the two of them sit together at the kitchen table for cookies and milk. During that time, the boy persuades Ona to tell her life’ story which he meticulously records on a cassette tape recorder his aunt has given him. The boy will write Ona’s life story for a school assignment. Through these recording sessions, readers learn more about Ona and about the boy as well.

Before Quinn’s next Saturday visit, Ona discovers the boy has died by reading his obituary in the newspaper. She allows Quinn to take care of the chores, but the two are still wary of one another. Meanwhile, Quinn continues his gigs, often with a group of teenagers who have formed a Christian rock band. The guitar-player in the band had a drug problem, so when he is in rehab, the boys call on Quinn whom they affectionately call Pops. In addition, Quinn does solo performances as well as reuniting with his old high school band buddies from time to time.

Quinn completes his son’s obligation to Ona and tells her he will not be back. Then Ona springs a request on him: she needs a ride to Vermont to see a son she gave up when she was only 14. Quinn rearranges his schedule so that he can drive Ona to Vermont. He thinks she is going to see her son, but her objective is to get her birth certificate which she thinks he has. Ona had run away with a circus when she was 14 and she came home in disgrace, pregnant.

Maud-Lucy, who rented an apartment upstairs from Ona’s family, taught Ona English since Ona’s family had immigrated from Lithuania. Her father was a doctor in Lithuania, but he and his wife both took menial jobs in the US. They wanted their daughter to speak perfect English and forbade her to speak Lithuanian at all. Ona describes Maud-Lucy “whose rooms smelled of ink and lavender. Who claimed to have no use for a man. Who longed for children and took Ona as a surrogate. Who fed adjectives to Ona like drops of chocolate.”

When Ona comes home pregnant and alone, Maud-Lucy agrees to take the baby and move back to her home in Vermont and raise the child there. Because Ona’s parents are distrustful of others, they give important documents including Ona’s birth certificate to Maud-Lucy for safe-keeping. Maud-Lucy is long dead, but Ona thinks the son Maud-Lucy raised will have the birth certificate.

Ona needs the birth certificate in order to prove her age and move forward toward claiming the oldest licensed driver title. The boy has impressed upon Ona the need for documentation in order to receive the Guinness record. Quinn and Ona are all set for their road trip when Belle shows up and insists upon going with them and doing the driving because she says Quinn is a terrible driver.

This road trip and quest for Ona’s birth certificate will surprise the readers and reveal more about all of the characters, including the boy.

Monica Wood maintains a robust Web site: There, readers will learn about her other books including books for teachers and tips for writers. In reading material on her site, I discovered an interview she did with a podcast on Radio Gorgeous: