Monthly Archives: August 2020

The Book Whisperer Asks Do Real Men Knit?

Standard

When I saw the title Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson, I was hooked and wanted to read the book. Until this summer, I am not sure I had ever read a rom-com. Now, I have read three. Real Men Knit features four brothers brought together by Mama Joy Strong. She adopts the boys out of foster care and nurtures and loves them, creating a family.

Mama Joy owns and operates a yarn shop in Harlem, a small shop where neighbors gather to knit and crochet and learn from each other. Kerry Fuller, not exactly an orphan or in foster care herself, but often left by her inattentive mother, finds refuge in the Strong Yarn Shop too.

Now in her early twenties, Kerry has finished college and hopes to get a full-time job at the rec center where she works part-time. She also works part-time for Mama Joy in the yarn shop. Then suddenly and unexpectedly, Mama Joy dies of a heart attack. Her death leaves her four sons and Kerry, an almost daughter, bereft and uncertain about how to continue.

Damian, the oldest brother and a successful financial analyst, wants to sell the shop including the building and apartment above the shop where the boys grew up. Lucas, the second oldest, is an NYC firefighter and often stays at the firehouse even when not on duty. Noah who is actually Lucas’s half-brother, is a dancer and ready to go on tour soon. That leaves Jesse, the youngest brother and the most problematic.

Jesse has flitted from one job to another almost as quickly as he has moved from one female to another. Therefore, when the boys get together after Mama Joy’s funeral, Damian, Lucas, and Noah are stunned when Jesse says he wants to keep the shop open and to run it himself. The three older brothers are more than reluctant to allow Jesse to try this venture until Kerry steps in and says she will continue helping to get Jesse started.

The four young men need the store to become financially sound because Mama Joy has borrowed money putting the brownstone up for collateral in order to keep the business afloat.  Thus, the five of them have a serious problem in trying to make the business stay alive.

Mama Joy has always been the glue to hold the four disparate boys together. What will keep them form tearing each apart now? Kerry’s frequent reminders of “is this what Mama Joy would want” do go a long way toward keeping the young men grounded and avoiding fights.

Add another complication into the mix. Kerry’s apartment suffers a blast when a gas leak causes an explosion in an adjacent building. Lucas and his firefighting brothers swarm the building warning residents to pack a bag and leave immediately. Lucas has also notified Jesse about Kerry’s predicament.

Thinking the residents will be able to return to the building even the next day, Jesse tells Kerry she can stay in Damian’s room in the brownstone above the yarn shop. Of course, it turns out that the structural damage to the apartment building will take longer to assess and repair than one day and night, so Kerry must either go to the Bronx for temporary housing and spend hours on the bus or subway getting to and from her apartment and work or she could continue to stay at the brownstone.

Readers also recognize the tension between Jesse and Kerry. They have known each other practically all their lives, but they have side-stepped one another most of that time. Besides, Kerry knows what a player Jesse is and does not feel she can trust him to have her best interest at heart.

Both Jesse and Kerry have ideas about sprucing up the Strong Yarn Shop and for the most part, their ideas are compatible. All four brothers work together to paint and add decorative touches to the shop. The regular knitting group of neighborhood women return even before the renovations have begun.

I did tire of the Strong brothers calling Kerry “Kerry girl.” I found it irritating and so does she!

Kerry creates Instagram and Twitter accounts and starts posting pictures of the handsome young men as they work to refurbish the Strong Yarn Shop. Just how will the ideas work to create more business as well as hold on to the customers already familiar with the store? Readers will have to read the whole book to discover the secrets and whether a spark does really exist between Jesse and Kerry or is it between two others in the story?

Kwana Jackson, http://www.kmjackson.com, grew up in NY and worked for ten years designing women’s sportswear, a dream from her childhood of being a fashion designer. Her other dream included becoming a writer. Jackson then decided she would venture into the world of writing and quit her job to begin writing. Readers will quickly see that Jackson has succeeded in both of her dreams.

The Book Whisperer Says Choose Happy

Standard

I received a free copy of 2021 Choose Happy: August 2020-December 2021 by Sourcebooks in exchange for an unbiased review. The planner is delightful. It emphasizes creating a plan to keep one organized and to focus on the positive.

Choose Happy is cheerful and will definitely keep one organized. On Saturday, September 5, this note “Who cares if it rains today? You know a rainbow is coming” reminds users that even rain is often followed by rainbows.  At the bottom of the page, users can write “THIS WEEK’S HAPPY MOMENT.”

Other encouraging quotes are scattered throughout the planner:

“Never sell yourself short.”

“You change the world for the better every single day.”

“Did you know you’re doing incredible things?”

This sort of encouragement is necessary, especially now in times of physical distancing. And even though many plans are on hold, there are others to be made and recorded. Work continues and so does school, so Choose Happy will keep people on track.

At the back of the planner, users will find stickers to affix to dates to remind them of appointments, meetings, notes to self, and others. Choose Happy is a delightful and useful tool.

On the home page for Sourcebooks, https://www.sourcebooks.com/, users will see “Books Change Lives.” Then there are three icons for more information: Booksellers, Librarians, and Readers. Sourcebooks also sponsors Bookmarked for Book Clubs, https://www.sourcebooks.com/bookmarkedforbookclubs.html, where readers will find resources for their own enjoyment or to enhance book club discussions.

The Book Whisperer Recommends Before and After

Standard

In reading about Lisa Wingate, I learned that her first-grade teacher encouraged Wingate to become a writer. Wingate describes a memory from first grade: “Mrs. Krackhardt stood over my desk and read a story I was writing. She said things like, ‘This is a great story! I wonder what happens next?’” That encouragement has led to Wingate’s publishing of over thirty novels and a nonfiction book, Before and After with co-author Julie Christie.

Before We Were Yours tackles the tough subject of Georgia Tann’s infamous Memphis Tennessee Children’s Home Society. While it is a novel, Wingate has done her research and uses it to develop a moving story of siblings separated and parents devastated.

Before We Were Yours is another story told in two parts by two narrators: Avery Stafford, present-day, and Rill/May the past. Avery Stafford has grown up privileged in a well-educated family; her father is a senator as was his father before him. A chance meeting in a nursing home brings Avery and May Crandall together when Avery and her father visit there. From that meeting, Avery starts on a quest to find out about May and a connection to Avery’s own grandmother Judy Stafford.

Problems ensue from the beginning because Judy Stafford is in the beginnings of Alzheimer’s, so her memory is clouded at times. She is also protecting a long-held secret. Avery must dig deeply to discover the truth and to find what connects Judy and May.

In 1939, Rill Foss, 12, and her four younger siblings live on a houseboat on the Mississippi River with their parents, Queenie and Briney. Their lives may be simple, but they love one another. Briney reads to the children and teaches them to love literature. Rill is the second mother to the children, especially now that Queenie has gone into labor and is having difficulty. The midwife insists Briney must take Queenie to the hospital that this birth is beyond her skill.

While Briney and Queenie are in the hospital, policemen come to the houseboat and take all the children away despite Rill’s efforts to take the children and escape. She is no match for the policemen who take the children to a waiting limousine. The imperious Georgia Tann sits in the car, a large, imposing woman. She orders the children into the car, telling them their parents asked her to take care of them and that she will take them to see their parents.

Rill is reluctant, but she has no choice but to comply. Two other frightened children are on the floorboard of the back seat, a brother and sister.

Between Avery’s investigations and May’s memories, the story comes together to give readers a complete picture. Georgia Tann kidnapped children and sold them to wealthy families all over the country, including movie stars in Hollywood. She was a greedy old woman concerned only with how much money she could extort from wealthy couples desperate to have children of their own.

Perfect for book clubs, Before We Were Yours will generate much discussion. Wingate’s “Note from the Author” at the end of the book provides a bit of history on Georgia Tann and her agency. Other research online will yield much fodder for further discussion.

Learn more about Lisa Wingate and all of her work on her Web site: https://lisawingate.com/.

The Book Whisperer Reviews the Book for One Book, One Tulsa

Standard

When I learned that Jacqueline Woodson and her book Red at the Bone would be featured in the One Book, One Tulsa virtual event on Sep 4, I immediately signed up to attend the event and requested the book from the library. Luckily, I received the book quickly. The library had purchased a number of extra copies in view of the upcoming virtual visit with Woodson.

To be candid, I had read a great deal about the book and eagerly wanted to read it. Red at the Bone has received high praise from both professional critics and ordinary readers. At only 196 pages, the book is short enough to read in a sitting—which I did.

The story moves back and forth in time and with a variety of narrators. I have a good attention span and can keep track of multiple narrators. Still, I had some trouble with Red at the Bone. I had to remind myself who was speaking at a given time.

Ultimately, the story is about family. Iris, a young woman who has grown up with privilege becomes pregnant at 15. Her parents are decidedly upset with her and even move to another home where they are not known when Iris insists upon keeping the baby whom she names Melody.

Aubrey, Melody’s father, has not grown up with the same privilege that Iris has known. He and his mother have patched together an existence since his father’s death. Aubrey has no desire to go to college or to change his status once he gets a job in the mail room of a large law firm. He does care about Iris and Melody although Iris is certainly ambivalent about both of them.

Aubrey’s mother tutors Iris through her pregnancy and Iris finishes high school on time. She chooses to go to college in Ohio, leaving her parents and Aubrey to raise Melody in NYC.

Sabe, Iris’s mother, was born in Tulsa, OK, and she lived through the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. The memory of that horrific time haunts her and makes her wish to be far from Tulsa and the memory.

While I am not enamored with the story in Red at the Bone, it continues to make me think about the events. Certainly, that is the hallmark of a well-written story. Often, too, a book that does not engage me can still generate much thought. That is the case with Red at the Bone.

Jacqueline Woodson, https://www.jacquelinewoodson.com/, has written picture books for children, YA novels, and novels for adults. Woodson says she has always loved to write and that she has always enjoyed telling stories. That is evident in the body of work she has already produced.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Friend’s Gifts of Books

Standard

My young friend Feride sent me two books recently. Rain Forests by Nancy Smiler Levinson, illustrated by Diane Dawson Hearn must have been one of her favorites because it has been well-read. The book is full of drawings and facts about rain forests from Madagascar to Costa Rica. In addition to information about the animals and plants, Levinson also describes how people have lived in the rain forests.

The book ends with the dangers rain forests face and the ways people can help to protect the forests. Another important feature is also found at the end. The last two pages provide quick facts on tropical rain forests and temperate rain forests.

The second book Feride sent me is one she wrote herself: The Thank You Book by Feride Yilmaz. It is a delightful reflection on ways to say thank you. I am privileged to have this early work by a budding writer.

Here are some ways to say thank you to others:

“You can thank someone by giving a toy.”

“You also can thank someone by giving some cookies.”

“And you can give someone a book!”

All these suggestions are excellent, especially the last one.

The Book Whisperer Enjoys a Junie B. Jones Book

Standard

Looking for a book for a young friend who is turning seven, I picked up my first Junie B. Jones book by Barbara Park. The one I chose is Junie B. Jones: Toothless Wonder. Denise Brunkus adds the illustrations. When I give a child a book, I like to read it first to make sure it is not only appropriate for the child’s age, but also reading the book gives me a clue about whether the child will enjoy the book.

Junie B. Jones is an irrepressible red-haired first grader. Perhaps the picture on the cover first drew me to the book since it features a red-haired girl wearing glasses and sporting a gap where she has lost a tooth. I don’t remember my reaction when I started losing baby teeth. However, I do well remember my sister’s reaction to losing a front tooth when she was in first grade.

Bitsy is two years younger than I. Our backyard joined the schoolyard, so we simply walked out the back door and across the yard to school the first nine years of our schooling. Over the weekend, my sister lost her front baby tooth. On Monday morning, she refused to go to school. Mother dragged Bitsy to the car and put her into the back seat. For some reason, Bitsy stayed; she was a strong-willed child, so I would not have been surprised to see her jump out the other door, but she did not. Mother then drove down the street and around the corner to the school.

Parking directly in front of the wide steps leading into the building, Mother opened the door to pull Bitsy out of the car. A teacher, now I cannot remember who, came to help and Mother handed Bitsy over to the teacher. The rest of the day must have passed without incident because Bitsy did not argue about going to school the next day.

The memory of my sister’s reluctance to go to school after losing her first front tooth must have made me want to read about Junie B. Jones and her experience.

Junie is funny and very certain in her beliefs. The book opens with a journal entry because her teacher Mr. Scary has told the children to write “in our journals until the speaker gets here.” The speaker is going to talk with the children about recycling trash which Junie is certain means “recycling is when you wash your trash.”

As she writes in her journal, Junie keeps wiggling her loose tooth. She wants it to come out and yet she does not. Then Miss Chris arrives to talk with the children about recycling. Junie B. is excited by the movie about Dan, Dan, the Soda Can and the adventure the can has in being purchased, thrown away, and then recycled.

Junie B. Jones: Toothless Wonder is fun to read. Children will enjoy the humor on one level while adults will see additional humor in it. For example, Junie B. refuses at first to put her tooth under her pillow for the tooth fairy. The exasperation her parents feel but try very hard to keep under control is priceless for any parent to read.

When Junie B. explains to her mom that her friend Paulie Allen told her the truth about the tooth fairy, Mother is surprised. Junie B. goes on to tell the story of not a tooth fairy, but a “tooth witch” who flies “on a teensy little toothbrush.” No amount of rebuttal by Junie B.’s mother or father will dissuade Junie B. from her belief in the tooth witch because, after all, Paulie Allen’s older brother told him the story!

The issue of leaving the tooth under her pillow is resolved, and Junie B. gets “CASH! CASH!” Recycling even comes back into the picture, but readers will have to read the whole story to see how that plays a part.

Barbara Park was a prolific author with a number of books published. She wrote nearly twenty books in the Junie B. series. She also wrote picture books and short stories as well as stand-alone novels. Her Web site, http://juniebjones.com/author, offers activities, games, and resources for parents and teachers. I highly recommend the series because I will be reading other Junie B. Jones’ adventures myself.

Denise Brunkus, illustrator, also has a section on the Web site with Park. She is a talented artist who has illustrated a large number of books including all of the Junie B. series.

The Book Whisperer Reports on a Novel Set in Colombia

Standard

Belonging to a book club does force one to read books one might not choose on one’s own. That is good even when the book does not appeal. That’s what happened to me in reading Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras for a September book club. I finished the book, but it is not my cup of tea. I do expect the discussion to be lively despite my disliking the story.

Chula, age 7, is the narrator, so readers get the story through the eyes of a naïve child trying to make sense of a world that often makes no sense. Chula, Cassandra, her slightly older sister, and Alma, their mother, live in Bogotá.  Chula’s father works away from home in the oil industry and arrives every other weekend for a quick visit.

Because of her father’s job, Chula and her sister live in relative safety and in absolute comfort in a gated community. They are aware of the constant threats in the country, though, of bombings, kidnappings, and assassinations. Pablo Escobar remains a threat as he hides from authorities. Young Chula fears Escobar and tries to hear any news about him on the radio or TV.

From this link: https://guilletovar.blogspot.com/2011/12/80-anos-de-conjuntos-cerrados.html

Chula’s beautiful mother, Alma, hires Petrona, a maid from the city’s slums. Petrona has a room in the house, but she does not always stay there. She returns to her home in the slums to help care for her younger siblings and her mother who has asthma. I was struck, particularly, by the description of their shack because one wall was made from doors cobbled together to form the wall. They are poor beyond description.

Dimitri O’Donnell/Al Jazeera

Petrona, only 14 when she comes to work for the Santiago family, remains an enigma to Chula. They form an unlikely friendship which includes some dark secrets. The secrets will become a danger to both Chula and Cassandra. Chula is too young to recognize the danger in Petrona, but she certainly is aware of the dangers Escobar poses.

Antonio, Chula’s father comes home for a vacation, and the whole family goes to visit Alma’s mother and extended family in the country. The trip itself is fraught with dangers because travel is dangerous. Alma’s mother lives in a cobbled-together home and runs a small store out of her living room where Chula and Cassandra are not allowed to go. To be candid, I found that trip to the countryside to be strange and I am still uncertain why Contreras includes it.

Like many current novels, Fruit of the Drunken Tree has dual narrators: Chula and Petrona. Both are still children, but Petrona has had to grow up quickly and is extremely street-wise, at least most of the time.

At the end of the book, readers discover that Fruit of the Drunken Tree is inspired by events in Contreras’s life. To avoid spoilers, I will not enumerate the similarities between the real events and the fictional ones.

Book club members will find much to discuss in Fruit of the Drunken Tree. What does the drunken tree symbolize? What political events in the story are true? What does the visit to Alma’s family in the countryside mean? What do the guerrilla forces add to the story?

Ingrid Rojas Contreras maintains a Web site at this link: https://www.ingridrojascontreras.com/.

The Book Whisperer Finds A Master Storyteller

Standard

In 1242, a group of travelers, strangers to one another for the most part, begin telling stories of three children and a dog, a saintly dog. Adam Gidwitz has written The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog in much the manner of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A major difference lies in the fact that Gidwitz does use modern language.

Gidwitz scatters dragons, demons, and witches into the tales along with a bit of magic, particularly among the children: William, Jeanne, and Jacob. William is a giant of a boy being raised in a monastery to become a priest. While he is not an orphan, his parents are not married to one another, so William is an embarrassment. Jeanne, a peasant girl, has visions of the future which means that illiterate folk label her as a witch. Jacob, a young Jewish boy, has healing powers. And then there is Gwenforte, a beloved “white greyhound , with a copper blaze down its nose.”

The Inquisitor’s Tale opens with a story of Jeanne as an infant with Gwenforte protecting her.  Her parents misunderstand a scene when they return home from working in the fields and think that Gwenforte has hurt or hidden baby Jeanne. In their horror, they kill Gwenforte only to discover the dog has been protecting Jeanne all along. They find the baby hidden in the hay bed and a dead adder in the corner of the room. But it is too late; Gwenforte is dead and buried in the forest.

When Jeanne’s parents learn the truth, they are saddened and the village folks venerate the dog as a protector. Thus, Gwenforte in death becomes a holy dog.

With that backstory, readers then meet the strangers in the inn where they are sharing stories. “The Nun’s Tale” begins with the elderly nun telling about Jeanne.  “The Librarian’s Tale” continues with letting the strangers know William’s story. Finally, “The Butcher’s Tale” provides Jacob’s background. Of course, these stories are just the beginning. Each storyteller knows more and tells just enough to keep the listeners interested.

Professional book reviews use words like staggering, hilarious, critically acclaimed, and celebrated in describing Gidwitz’s The Inquisitor’s Tale. Readers will be interested in learning how three such unlikely children and a holy dog become travelers together much less friends.

Adam Gidwitz has received high praise for The Inquisitor’s Tale. Learn more on his Web site: https://www.adamgidwitz.com/. He has received honors for his A Tale Dark and Grimm and The Unicorn Rescue Society. After teaching elementary school for eight years, Gidwitz now writes full time.

Hatem Aly, https://www.metahatem.com/, illustrates The Inquisitor’s Tale by adding pen and ink drawings scattered throughout the book. Often, the illustrations grace the sides of the pages. Aly, Egyptian-born, has worked on TV shows and a wide variety of publications all over the world.

The Inquisitor’s Tale is touted as a book for children ages 10 – 14. The younger children may not understand the humor, but the older readers will enjoy the variety of tales and the unexpected events that occur throughout. It would make a good book for parents to read with children to discuss the stories as they go through them.

The Book Whisperer Recommends a Woman of No Importance

Standard

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell is nonfiction, but it does read much like a spy novel. Virginia grew up with her mother expecting her to marry a wealthy man to help shore up the family’s social standing in Baltimore. Virginia has another reality in her sights.

Virginia Hall, a Woman of No Importance

Virginia lost her leg after an accident. The fact that she has a prosthetic leg did not keep her from becoming an effective spy. We often think of spies as people who are chameleon-like, able to change their appearance quickly and decisively in order to hide in plain sight.

Virginia became “the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and –despite her prosthetic leg—helped to light the flame of the French Resistance.” Because of her warm nature, Virginia drew people to her. That warmth and inviting personality helped her build a network of safe houses among an unlikely group of people

Also, despite the clunky prosthetic leg, Virginia does manage to disguise herself. She learns to use makeup to give herself wrinkles, making her look much older than she really is. Even when her face is on wanted posters all over France and none other than Klaus Barbie, “the Butcher of Lyon,” tried to find her, Virginia continues her work and refuses to leave France.

Virginia “talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill’s ‘Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare’.”

Readers will learn much about Virginia Hall from an NPR story, “A Woman of No Importance Finally Gets Her Due.” Greg Myre tells listeners “Virginia Hall is one of the most important American spies most people have never heard of.” Myre goes on to explain that at the CIA Museum, Virginia’s story is on display, BUT the display is off-limits to the public. The museum’s deputy director, Janelle Neises says, “[Virginia Hall] was the most highly decorated female civilian during World War II.”

So why do so few people know Virginia Hall’s story? Sonia Purnell, author of A Woman of No Importance, explained she had to do an enormous amount of research, hunt down reports, and seek out stories from others in order to write her book about Hall. Hall herself would rarely talk about her work during WWII. Purnell says spies rarely sit down following a successful or unsuccessful operation to document what had happened. The very nature of spy work means secrets and secretive.

Sonia Purnell, https://www.soniapurnell.com/about, is a journalist, and author. She wrote an unauthorized biography of Boris Johnson, Just Boris: A Tale of Blond Ambition.  Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, Purnell’s biography about Winston Churchill’s wife received a great deal of attention because it shows the “vital role” she played in Churchill’s career.

Readers should pay attention to A Woman of No Importance. It has received numerous awards and much recognition. NPR chose it as a Best Book of the Year along with honors accorded it by the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, and the Times of London.

The Book Whisperer Finds Yet Another Book in Another Zone

Standard

Monsterland by Michael Okon is the first of two books on the same theme. The second book is Monsterland Reanimated. Monsterland is a theme park the likes of which visitors have not seen before. Vampires, werewolves, and Zombies abound—the real deal. So guests can find as many heart-stopping moments as they can stand by visiting Monsterland.

Other reviewers have used words like fun, a romp, and deadly in describing Monsterland. Visitors first notice the giant sign at the entrance to Monsterland: “the Monsterland logo, a large M in the center of vampire teeth.” Of course, how else would the theme park announce itself?

Readers will enjoy references to popular culture such as America’s Funniest Home Videos, George Romero movies, and wrestling.

Wyatt who desperately wants to visit Monsterland asks quietly, “MOnsterland … it’s safe, right?” He is holding his invitation aloft. Vincent responds, “Monsterland is the safest place on Earth. I assure you, the safest place. And you will be the ones to tell the world.” Hmmm, how much of that statement should readers believe?

Like any theme park, Monsterland offers its guests a choice of dining establishments. Blud & Gutz is an informal diner serving cafeteria style. On the other hand La Petit Beast promises fine dining “for distinguished guests.” Another choice is The Skullery.

As a book club choice, I can see a group of teenagers finding much to discuss in Monsterland and most likely going on to read Monsterland Reanimated. My book club is probably not going to find the theme park with it real vampires, werewolves, and Zombies intriguing. That isn’t to say that Monsterland won’t have its readers. It will certainly find a specific audience.

Michael Okon is another author who graduated with a degree in English and then received an MBA in business and finance. As an English major myself with no head for finance, I find that combination intriguing. Michael Okon’s Web site, http://www.michaelokon.com/, offers more information on his life and his books including the newly published Witches Protection Program. In this latest book, Okon brings witches to life.