Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Book Whisperer Reads Another New-to-Her Author: Cleeton

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About a year ago, I joined a book club at my branch of the Tulsa City-County Libraries. Kelli McDowell, library manager, chooses the books and leads the discussions. I am finding this book club a welcome respite because my responsibilities are to read the books chosen and be prepared for the discussions —and occasionally to bring refreshments.

Over the time I’ve been in Beyond the Book, Ms. McDowell has chosen books I’ve already read, books I would not have chosen on my own, and books I’ve been eager to read. I’ve read all of them regardless of whether I had already read the book—a refresher is always good. The books I would not have chosen have been intriguing and fun to read. Since I choose books for another book club (or two?), I like having someone else choose for this one.

The book for September is Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton. I knew that Reese Witherspoon had chosen it for her book club and had the book on my TBR list, so it is a welcome choice. I looked up information on Chanel Cleeton since I am not familiar with her work.

She has written a number of romance novels and a thriller and now this semi-political novel set in Cuba, Next Year in Havana. As I read about Cleeton, I discovered that she wanted to explore her own heritage since her family had escaped from Cuba in 1960 and landed in Florida. She has listened to her grandparents reminisce about their lives in Cuba, but they are reluctant to talk about some of the deprivation they suffered after Castro took over. Cleeton says her grandfather, similar to people who grew up in the Great Depression, cannot bear to see food wasted because food was in such short supply.

Like many writers, Cleeton gives her readers the Perez family’s story told in two parts: then and now. She also tells the story through two characters, Elise Perez and Marisol Ferrera, Elise’s granddaughter.

Marisol’s parents divorced when she and her sisters were small and their mother moved away, leaving the girls in their father’s care. His mother Elise, the girls’ paternal grandmother, steps in to help her son with his daughters. Elise and Marisol share the closest bond and are much alike. When Elise dies suddenly in her 70s, she leaves instructions for Marisol to take her ashes back to Cuba. In the instructions, she says that Marisol will know where to leave the ashes once she is there.

Thus, Cleeton sets up a mystery for Marisol to solve so that she knows the right place to leave her dear grandmother’s ashes. Marisol is a freelance journalist, so she has a reason to visit Cuba now that restrictions are somewhat relaxed and Americans can visit there. She does not know when she sets off on her journey that she will discover family secrets and a love.

Ostensibly, Marisol is in Cuba to write about tourist spots for a magazine, and she does plan to do that too. She has to smuggle her grandmother’s ashes into Cuba in a cosmetic jar and she hopes the jar won’t be opened during her entrance into Cuba at the airport.

Marisol has made arrangements to stay with Ana Rodriguez, Elise’s neighbor and childhood friend. Ana still lives in her family home next door to the old home where the Perez family lived, now occupied by Russian diplomats.

Luis Rodriguez, Ana’s grandson, picks Marisol up from the airport and takes her to his grandmother’s home where he also lives with his mother and his ex-wife. Luis is a history professor at the University of Havana. Immediately, sparks fly when the two meet, but Marisol is wary. She is in Havana for a few days only and she has much to do.

In Elise’s story, readers learn about the revolution and the factions trying to defeat Batista. Elise and her family live the lives of the very privileged. They are wealthy and feel untouched by dangers around them until all comes crashing down. Their father has supported Batista, so that puts the family in immediate danger when Castro takes over.

The Perez family manages to leave Cuba for the US as if going on vacation. Elise and her three sisters can take only one suitcase each and must leave valuables behind. Elise buries a box containing items precious to her in the backyard and enlists her friend Ana in the middle of the night to witness where the box is buried. Ana later digs that box up and keeps it safe without opening it until she gives it to Marisol.

Elise’s treasures in the box lead Marisol into some danger and Luis is right beside her. Readers also learn that Luis blogs under an assumed name and his blogging could get him into serious trouble with the government. He reminds Marisol that as an American and someone staying with the Rodriguez family she is being watched.

The Malecon in Havana which plays an important part for both Elise and Marisol

To discover all the political and romantic intrigues, read Next Year in Havana. One of my reading quirks is that I like to discover that the writer has used the title of the book somewhere in the book. The caveat is that it must appear naturally; it can’t be forced or just dropped in inexplicably. Cleeton meets my expectations in that regard. Cubans who fled Cuba after Castro took over, end their toasts with “Next year in Havana.”

Cleeton maintains a robust Web site at this link: http://www.chanelcleeton.com. Readers can also sign up to receive her newsletter: http://www.chanelcleeton.com/mailing-list/.

The Book Whisperer Invites Readers to the 2019 Books Sandwiched In series at Central Library

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Today’s blog takes a new turn in that I am not reviewing a single book, but I’m promoting the Books Sandwiched In fall 2019 series. The book reviews are held at the Central Library, downtown Tulsa in Aaronson Auditorium. The reviews begin at 12:10 PM on Mondays and end at 12:50 PM. This year, there are two exceptions. The first review will be at Marshall Brewery, 6th & Utica, at 6:00 PM because Central Library (and, in fact, all libraries) is closed for a day of staff development. The second exception occurs on Nov 12 which is a Tuesday since the libraries are closed for Veterans’ Day on Monday, Nov 11. The time remains the same for this review: 12:10 – 12:50 PM. The complete schedule is listed at the end of this blog.

Guests are encouraged to bring their lunch and listen to the book reviews. Bring a friend or two along to enjoy the reviews as well. Starbucks, located on the first floor of Central Library, is the only library-owned Starbucks in the US. Money made over expenses goes to help fund library programs. Thus, purchasing food and drinks from the Central Library Starbucks helps support the library system.

Mon, Oct 14, 6:00 PM, Marshall Brewery: John Carreyou details in Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup the story of Theranos and its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Holmes promoted a radical idea that a single drop of blood could determine any number of diseases. Through the use of a machine installed in pharmacies, people could have a drop of blood drawn to give them quick, accurate test results. Sadly, the idea does not work, but Holmes raised more than $9 billion to fund her project until the whole company collapsed. Carreyou has written a true story that reads like a fast-paced thriller.

Mon, Oct 21, 12:10-12:50 PM: The Book Whisperer reviewed The Library Book by Susan Orlean on 25 Nov 2018. See the complete review there. Susan Orlean has written a captivating book about the Los Angeles Library fire in 1984. To explain the full extent of the fire and its aftermath, Orlean also provides a history of the library system in Los Angeles and how critical the library is to the well-being of a city and its people.

Mon, Oct 28, 12:10-12:50 PM: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is another book the Book Whisperer reviewed; this one on 15 Mar 2019. Owens has written a coming of age story combined with a mystery and wrapped in nature. Where the Crawdads Sing is a must read.

Mon, Nov 4, 12:10-12:50 PM: Marie Benedict’s The Only Woman in the Room will be reviewed. Again, the Book Whisperer reviewed The Only Woman in the Room in this blog on 13 Apr 2019. Hedy Lamarr has long been known as a beautiful Hollywood star. In truth, she was a scientist.

Tues, Nov 12, 12:10-12:50 PM: Because the libraries are closed for Veterans’ Day on Monday, Nov 11, the review of Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page will take place on a Tuesday. The review of two books by and about First Ladies is unprecedented. Michelle Obama and Barbara Bush both contributed much to the US during their tenures as First Ladies.

Mon, Nov 18, 12:10-12:50 PM: Meet me at the Museum by Anne Youngston is the kind of novel to read and reread. Told in the form of letters between Tina Hopgood, an English farm wife, and Anders Larsen, a museum director in Denmark, Meet me at the Museum chronicles the growing friendship between two strangers through the letters they exchange. The Book Whisperer reviewed Meet me at the Museum in this blog on 1 Feb 2019.

Mon, Nov 25, 12:10-12:50 PM: Recipient of the 2019 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author Award is Stacy Schiff. A review of her body of work will include an overview of such books as The Witches: Salem, 1692, Cleopatra: A Life, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America. Such acclaimed authors as David McCullough, another Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author recipient, praise Schiff’s writing as “brilliant from start to finish.”

2019 Books Sandwiched In Book Reviews

12:10-12:50 PM, Aaronson Auditorium, Central Library (two exceptions, noted with **)

Bring your lunch and bring a friend or two to enjoy these book reviews.

Oct 14**: Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou (held in the evening at Marshall Brewery, 6th & Utica. The library is closed for staff development that day.)

Oct 21: The Library Book by Susan Orlean  (Monday marks the beginning of National Friends of the Library Week, so the review celebrates libraries.)

Oct 28: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Nov 4: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Nov 12**: (TUESDAY because the library is closed for Veterans’ Day Nov 11): Becoming by Michelle Obama and The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty by Susan Page 

Nov 18: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngston

Nov 25: Overview of the work of Stacy Schiff, the 2019 Peggy V. Helmerich Distinguished Author recipient

The Book Whisperer Re-examines The Orphan’s Tale

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I had read The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff some time ago for a book club. Another book club chose The Orphan’s Tale for the August book to discuss. It had been long enough that I needed to reread the book, and I am glad I did. I had forgotten some important details. I thoroughly enjoyed The Orphan’s Tale the second time around.

Jenoff leads readers on an interesting journey by beginning in the prologue with the present day and a 90-year-old unnamed woman who slips out of her nursing home in Florida to fly to Paris to see a circus exhibit: Two Hundred Years of Circus Magic. Now, why would this woman risk such a daring escape from her nursing home, telling no one?

Chapter One takes readers back to Germany, 1944. Each chapter is narrated by either by Noa, a sixteen-year-old girl cast out of her Dutch home, or Astrid, a Jewish circus performer from a long-time circus family now hiding in plain sight in a German, non-Jewish circus.

Noa has been sent away by her family because she became pregnant by a German soldier who was long gone from the area when Noa realized she was pregnant. Most likely, the pregnancy would not have mattered to the soldier anyway. Noa’s furious parents send her to a home where she lives until she gives birth to a baby boy. She is allowed to hold the baby only once before he is snatched away, never to be seen again.

Knowing she cannot return home, Noa finds a job as cleaner at a railroad station where she receives a tiny cubical in the attic fitted with an old mattress as a place to live. One snowy evening, she walks past a railroad car and sees it is full of infants, some of whom have no clothing, some are already dead and others are clearly nearly dead. On an impluse she cannot explain, she plucks one of the babies from the train, a baby boy.

Noa’s action of taking the baby sets her on a journey that will endanger her and the infant. She knows she must flee the railroad station in the freezing cold and snow. She has nothing but the clothes on her back which includes a thin coat. She wraps the baby as best she can, discovering when she cleans him up in the railway station bathroom that the baby is Jewish because he has been circumsised. Thus, she will be in even greater danger with a Jewish baby even though she is the ideal Aryan with blonde hair.

Noa falls in unconscious in the snow with the baby. When she awakens, she finds herself taken in by the German circus in the area. There, she meets Astrid, another castaway the circus has taken in. Everyone must earn his/her keep in the circus, so Astrid reluctantly sets about teaching Noa the high wire acrobat act. Noa is quite as reluctant to learn since she has never even thought about being an high-wire acrobat.

Astrid and Noa enter into a wary relationship, each distrusting the other. Circumstances, particularly danger for both of them and for Theo, the little boy Noa has rescued, change turning the two into friends. Even then, the two have some misgivings about the other.

With the Nazis being ever-present, everyone who works in the circus must be on alert. Danger exists around every corner.

Jenoff weaves the tales told by the two narrators seamless so that readers discover the full picture. Readers will also realize a surprise at the end of the story if they have not already determined who the narrator of the prologue is.

Pam Jenoff has published 11 books. At her Web site, http://www.pamjenoff.com/, readers will find information on all of the novels along with questions to use in book clubs for discussion.

German circus ringmaster, Adolf Althoff, https://circustalk.com/news/how-a-german-circus-saved-a-jewish-family-of-circus-artists, saved Jewish performers by hiding them within his circus. Pam Jenoff researched Althoff’s circus and used some of that information in her novel. The picture below is from the article found in Circus Talk; see the URL above.

The Book Whisperer Endorses a YA Novel About WWII

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I purchased a copy of Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse several months ago. I kept moving it from TBR pile to another. This week, I picked up Girl in the Blue Coat and read it cover-to-cover in two days. One of my book clubs will be discussing Girl in the Blue Coat at our September meeting.

 That same book club discussed The Zookeeper’s Wife in August. We alternate between reading fiction and nonfiction. Girl in the Blue Coat is fiction, but it fits with our WWII theme. Hesse sets her book in Amsterdam in 1943. Hanneke, the narrator, is freshly out of high school, but the war has certainly made her older and wiser than her years.

Hanneke works for Mr. Kruek at his funeral home. After working there for a time, Hanneke becomes more than a clerk for Mr. Kruek; he enlists her help in the black-market of locating and delivering hard-to-find goods. In order to complete the orders, Hanneke must be resourceful and quick on her feet in thinking of responses when the Nazi soldiers stop her as she makes her way around the city on her bicycle.

In many stories about war, any number of people keep secrets. For Jewish people, for example, they may be hiding their family’s heritage, fearing at any time to be caught. Others are secretive about their activities such as Hanneke’s work in the black-market or even more dangerous actions such as hiding those the Nazis are rounding up and sending to relocation camps.

Hanneke becomes involved in locating a missing Jewish girl when Mrs. Janssen, one of her black-market customers, requests Hanneke’s help. Mrs. Janssen has been hiding Mirjam Roodveldt in a specially built nook behind her kitchen pantry and only accessible through the pantry itself. The hidden door to the nook is completely undetectable. Mirjam’s father had been Mrs. Janssens’ business partner in a furniture store. Mr. Janssen had been hiding the entire family in a backroom of the store that was also cleverly concealed.

However, someone had discovered the family and had killed all of them, including Lea, Mirjam’s twelve-year-old sister. In the chaos of the attack, Mirjam managed to escape and she ran to Mrs. Janssen’s home where Mrs. Janssen immediately put her into the saferoom.

Now, though, Mirjam is missing and Mrs. Janssen is extremely worried about the fifteen-year-old. Hanneke is reluctant to take on the task of locating Mirjam. Until now, she has concentrated on finding the hart-to-locate items like cigarettes, coffee, meat, and chocolate for the clients Mr. Kruek helps.

Despite the obvious dangers, Hanneke agrees to try to locate Mirjam. Doing so puts Hanneke is danger herself and can possibly endanger others as well. Perhaps her tightly guarded secret of feeling she has caused Bas, the love of her life, to enlist in the Navy despite being too young and then of being killed in a battle, leads Hanneke to try to find and save Mirjam.

Locating Mirjam will be difficult and unlike any other task Hanneke has undertaken. Hanneke must find others who can help her. Of course, the more people involved, the greater the danger too.

Hanneke draws attention to herself when she goes to the Jewish high school in an effort to find a picture of Mirjam. Even though she flees the school without giving her name, Judith, a young woman who works at the school, describes Hanneke to Ollie, Bas’s older brother, and Ollie realizes that Hanneke must be the person whom Judith encountered.

Ollie seeks Hanneke out to discover why she has been to the school. Ollie persuades Hanneke to tell him the whole story and he reluctantly agrees to help her. Ollie’s agreement then puts him, his friends, and Hanneke in more danger, but they are all part of a movement larger than themselves at this point. Ollie and his friends have already been heavily involved in the resistance, so now Hanneke is a part of the movement too.

At the end of Girl in the Blue Coat, Hesse includes “A Note on Historical Accuracy.” In it, she reminds readers that “some one hundred thousand Dutch Jews died in the Holocaust—nearly three-quarters of the Jewish population, a much higher percentage than in nearby countries.”  Hesse goes on to say that “Ollie and Judith and their friends represent an amalgamation of several different types of resistance activities, but they are mostly based on the Amsterdam Student Group who specialized in rescuing children.” Further, Hesse explains that “an estimated six hundred Jewish children were sneaked out of the nursery” and given to non-Jewish families in order to save them.

Girl in the Blue Coat is full of danger, of risks, and of concern for one’s fellow human beings. The characters in the story may be fictional, but they worked to save lives in much the same way that real people did. Monica Hesse is a journalist, and she researched the story the same way she would have researched a nonfiction book or newspaper article.

Hesse has received a number of awards for her work. She is also a feature writer for the Washington Post. Her nonfiction American Fire looks like an interesting story that deals with a true crime love story. Who could resist that description? Monica Hesse maintains a Web site at this link: https://www.monicahesse.com/.

The Book Whisperer Reviews a Touching Story of WWI

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I read about all sorts of books and I should try to keep track of where I read about a book when I request it from the library, but that would involve a system and discipline. Instead, I simply put in the request and wait for the book to arrive at my branch. Recently, I read an article about a variety of children’s books, picture books and juvenile titles. One of those books was Captain Rosalie by Timothee de Fombelle, illustrated by Isabelle Arsenault, and translated into English by Sam Gordon.

De Fombelle has written several novels for young adults as well as plays, even designing and building his own sets for the dramas.  Critics describe de Fombelle’s writing as “powerful, exciting, unusual, and beautiful.”

Margaret Kennelly, writing for School Library Journal, says, “Readers are quickly drawn into the world Rosalie describes through first-person perspective.” Kennelly goes on to praise Captain Rosalie as “a great hi-lo reader to introduce the destructive aftermath of WWI and to learn how to deal with loss.”

Isabelle Arsenault’s elegant drawings enhance de Fombelle’s text. She uses mostly shades of gray with splashes of color, especially for Rosalie’s red hair.

While Rosalie’s father is away fighting in WWI, Rosalie and her mother live simply in a two-room house. Rosalie’s mom works in a factory, so she takes Rosalie to the nearby school where Rosalie waits for the teacher to arrive. Rosalie’s mother has arranged with the teacher to allow Rosalie to sit in the back of the room while the older children have their classes.

Rosalie tells readers on page one that “I have a secret. The others think I’m drawing in my notebook when I’m sitting on the little bench underneath the coat hooks at the back of the classroom.” Then she explains her secret: “I am spying on the enemy. I am preparing my plan. I am Captain Rosalie.”

Though she is disguised as a five-year-old girl, Rosalie has a mission and knows she will receive a medal for her accomplishments. She keeps quiet and tells no one of her mission. She knows that she must work in secret.

Timothee de Fombelle has created a moving story of a little girl and her mother waiting for news from a soldier father and husband. The war creates surprising heroes and puts Rosalie on a mission of secrecy. Captain Rosalie is a touching story, not just for K-grade three readers, but for all readers. Isabelle Arsenault’s drawing add another depth to the story.

The Book Whisperer Discovers a New-to-Her Cozy Author

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Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh, endures a year of mourning for an unfaithful husband. When the mourning ends, she throws off her black clothing and heads for London, shedding not only the clothes of mourning, but also the crumbling mansion that now belongs to the second son, Graham and his wife Delia. With her young daughter Rose, Frances takes a long-term lease on a house in Belgravia, part of London.

As a mystery lover and a cozy mystery lover to boot, I enjoy discovering new authors as well as relying on my long-time favorites.  In a recent article, I read about Dianne Freeman whose new series stars an amateur sleuth, Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh.  The first book is A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder, published in 2018 and the second book is A Lady’s Guide to Gossip and Murder, published in 2019.

Frances is a bit taken aback when she discovers George Hazelton, brother to her best friend Fiona, is her next-door neighbor. She and George and Alicia Stoke-Whitney share a dark secret they wish to keep in the dark.

Frances Wynn, Countess of Harleigh, endures a year of mourning for an unfaithful husband. When the mourning ends, she throws off her black clothing and heads for London, shedding not only the clothes of mourning, but also the crumbling mansion that now belongs to the second son, Graham and his wife Delia. Frances is enjoying her freedom in London when she discovers her mother in America is sending Frances’s younger sister Lily and their aunt Hetty to live with Frances so that Frances can sponsor Lily for the season. The story heats up when Inspector Delaney visits Frances and tells her that her husband’s death is being investigated as a possible murder. Frances is certain he died of a heart attack, but is that accurate? To make matters worse, Graham is suing Frances to keep the money Frances’s father bestowed upon her when she married Reggie, Graham’s older brother. The suit freezes Frances’s bank account, at least temporarily. Could the plot worsen? read A Lady’s Guide to Etiquette and Murder to discover the whole story.

Frances is herself an American. Her upwardly climbing and wealthy mother sought a title for her daughter so she herself would have bragging rights. She and Frances knew little about Reggie Wynn when the marriage was arranged. Frances soon found herself having to pretend she knew nothing of Reggie’s unfaithful ways. When her daughter Rose is born, Frances focuses on the child. Now, Lily is coming to London to marry another titled Englishman.

Frances vows to help Lily make a better choice than she herself made in marrying Reggie. Other complications will take part of her concentration, however.

Dianne Freeman has written compelling characters who command attention and the plot is complicated enough to remain interesting without being over the top.

Freeman’s blog, https://difreeman.com/, provides readers with a brief biography and an introduction to the books as well as a readers’ guide. For her blog, Freeman interviews other authors and she gives insight into some of her minor characters as well.

The Book Whisperer is a Book Club Junkie

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When I tell myself to stop looking at, reading about, and seeking out books to read, I always fail. I am a member of two book clubs that tell me what to read, so I have no responsibilities except to read the books by the appointed day and time and be prepared to discuss them. I am happy with that arrangement.

I also belong to two other book clubs where I have a great deal more responsibility. One of those, I started in 1985; over time, the group has evolved so that I choose the books for each meeting. Because we follow an academic calendar for that group, I choose three books for the fall with a theme in mind and three for the spring with a different theme. In the summer, I choose a book for the June discussion; in July, members bring a book to describe to the others in an attempt to interest them in reading the book. I do provide guidelines that limit the discussions so that everyone has an opportunity to speak.

I am the leader of a fairly new book club, formed in Nov 2017. Choosing books for that club is a bit less straightforward. I both take suggestions from members and make suggestions, but, admittedly, I tend to sway the decisions.

Should I mention that I belong to yet one more book club? It meets irregularly and only from September through April. I am not responsible for selecting the books for it, but I am a consultant.

Should I also mention that I do love to read and to discuss books? Or perhaps that is self-evident.

Some of my favorite sources for locating books include the following: Nancy Pearl, https://www.nancypearl.com/; Riffle, https://www.rifflebooks.com/; Bookriot, https://bookriot.com/; and NPR books, https://www.npr.org/books/. BookBrowse, https://www.bookbrowse.com/, is another useful source. After using the free portion of BookBrowse for some time, I decided to join and have access to more information now. I have also received several books from BookBrowse to read, review, and discuss.

Today, as I read my email, I started down a rabbit hole of books recommended from some of the sites listed above. I started with Nancy Pearl’s site. Her reviews intrigue me. I discovered two nonfiction books to keep in mind for one of the book clubs.

Code Girls by Liza Mundy tells the story of women who served as code breakers during WWII. More than ten thousand women came from small towns and elite colleges to help shorten the war and save lives. Who would not be interested in the story of these women?  Pearl also mentioned The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. In her review, she said The Hare With Amber Eyes is a book she would like to give to everyone. To me, that sentence sealed my desire to read the book. De Waal provides a true story of art, history, and family. De Waal inherited his family’s collection of 264 “wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.” From Japan, they are netsuke, objects of art which evolved over time from utilitarian objects that were used to secure a cord which held personal possessions. Kimonos had no pockets, so men who needed a place to keep pipes, tobacco, money, and other personal items would put them into a pouch which then hung from a cord on the sash or obi. The netsuke started as an object of utility, but evolved into art forms. The family also owned a large collection of priceless art in other forms, but the Nazis removed all that art. Because the netsuke were hidden away, they survived to remain in the family.

Hooper

Nancy Pearl’s recommendation of Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper caught my attention because I had read Etta and Otto and Russell and James, also by Hooper. Our Homesick Songs is a story of a family “on the edge of extinction, and the different way each of them fights to keep hope, memory, and love alive.” I enjoyed Etta and Otto and Russell and James so I am intrigued by Hooper’s new novel. I have been unable to discuss Etta and Otto and Russell and James with anyone else, so I am hopeful that will not be the case with Our Homesick Songs.

Another book on Pearl’s fiction recommendations is The Great Believers by Rebedda Makkai. Makkai weaves in the story of the AIDS crisis along with art, loss, and friendship. The story takes place in Chicago and Paris. A Rising Man by Abir Mukherjee puts readers in Calcutta in 1919. It is also the first in a planned trilogy starring Captain Sam Wyndham, formerly of Scotland Yard, and now living in Calcutta for a new post in the police there.

Kane

Then at NPR books, I discovered Rules for Visiting by Jessica Francis Kane. May, the main character, is a university gardener who is more at home with plants than with people. At forty, she decides to take a year and reconnect with four old friends. May has four rules which she follows rigidly:

  1. Make the visit for the purpose of friendship only—not because you have a business trip in the area, for example.
  2. Stay at your friend’s house.
  3. Be alive in the space of the friendship, meaning no social media during the visit. Take pictures for yourself, if you want, but no posting until later.
  4. Don’t make special plans (spa, resort, fancy local restaurant), because the purpose is to see an ordinary day in the life of your friend.

So, dear readers, as you can see, my desire to stop looking for books to read is an impossible goal. I must continue to look for that next great read to share with my book clubs, my friends who are not in book clubs, and my blog readers.

Currently, that book is Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok, but you will have to look for the complete review from the Book Whisperer soon.

The Book Whisperer Recommends

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Today’s blog takes a little different turn in reminding readers about some recent recommendations.

According to Fernando Pessoa, “Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.” If you are looking for some ways to ignore the current life we are living, the Book Whisperer has some inviting suggestions for you.

Hillman

If you would like to escape to a small town in Australia in the 1960s, pick up The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman. Tom Hope, a farmer, feels blissfully happy with his wife Trudy and his farm. Unfortunately, Trudy has not taken well to being a farmer’s wife, and she leaves Tom. When she returns some months later, she tells Tom she is pregnant with another man’s child, but Tom, the bighearted man he is, tells her he will take care of her and will love the child as his own. Of course, readers know that Trudy has left once and so she is unlikely to be content on the farm. The story moves from Trudy’s second departure with her leaving Peter, her son, in Tom’s loving care and Tom’s meeting Hannah Babel. Hannah, a Hungarian Jew, is a survivor of Auschwitz seeking a new life in Australia. Hillman includes a love story, but The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted is not a romance. Life is not all moonlight and roses for Tom and Hannah, but they do find they can build a life together despite the blows they have taken.

Demirtas

Would you like a trip to Turkey, but without the dangers of current travel there? Selahattin Demirtaş, a Turkish lawyer and activist, has written Dawn, a book of short stories. Demirtaş is currently in prison as an enemy of the state of Turkey. The stories are raw and differ widely from one another. They depict people in terrible situations and yet also show their spirit to survive and overcome. Demirtaş wrote the stories from his jail cell and managed to get them out of the prison to be published. Dawn is a book worth reading.

Youngson

What about a trip to England and Denmark? Meet me at the Museum, Anne Youngson’s debut novel written in the form of letters between two strangers, will certainly engage readers. Tina Hapgood is a lonely British farmer’s wife. Her children are grown and her husband is distant. She and her long-time friend Bella always planned to go to Denmark to see the Tollund Man. In middle school, they learned of The Bog People, a book about the Tollund Man. As so often happens, they both married, had children, and first one thing and then another has kept them from fulfilling their promise to each other. Then Bella dies of cancer, leaving Tina thinking about what might have been. On impulse, Tina writes a letter to Professor Glob, who wrote The Bog People, and sends it to the museum which houses the Tollund Man. The professor has died, but Anders Larsen, the curator of the museum, responds to Tina’s letter. Thus, a correspondence begins between them. As the letters continue, Tina and Anders open up about themselves and their lives. Meet me at the Museum is a delightful book.

Jeffers

And now for something completely different, an imaginary journey: This Moose Belongs to ME by Oliver Jeffers takes readers on a picture-book journey. Jeffers is a talented artist who draws realistic landscapes with Wilfred, a young boy, and Marcel, a moose, drawn in child-like fashion against the realistic landscapes. The result is a delight for the eye. And the story is fun too. Wilfred learns a good lesson about owning a moose—or not owning a moose.

The Book Whisperer Recommends a MUST Read: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

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The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson troubled me a great deal, but, at the same time, it brought hope. Cussy Mary Carter, 19, becomes a part of the WPA’s Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project in 1936, over her pa’s objections. Richardson’s story depicts the hardships folks faced living in the hills of KY during the heart of the Great Depression.

Babies born sickly died almost without taking a breath; those who did live clung to life precariously, continuously starved. Whole families perished from starvation. If the people managed to keep body and soul together, illnesses and accidents occurred. Hill remedies were sometimes more harmful than the illness or accident itself.  Honey was a much-prized commodity, used not only for cooking or on biscuits, but also put onto wounds to help with healing. Mothers sometimes rubbed chicken guts onto babies’ gums when they were teething to ease the pain.

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek tackles all those issues of starvation, lack of opportunity, and prejudice. There is also the issue of the coal mine owners’ treatment of the miners and the miners’ attempts to organize a union, leading to deaths among those miners brave enough to risk their lives to help themselves and their brother miners to a better life.  I read the book in two days because I had to know what happened.

Cussy Mary can read and write, but she is starved to know more. Earning $28 monthly as a Pack Horse Librarian, Cussy Mary can help her and her pa, a coal miner, survive. But young women are supposed to marry, have children, and take care of a home. Cussy Mary rejects those notions despite her father’s wish that she marry.

Cussy Mary is named for Cussy, France, her great-grandfather’s birthplace. When she was born, Doc gave Cussy Mary the name Bluet because of the color of her skin. Later, readers discover Cussy Mary suffers from a hereditary disorder called congenital methemoglobinemia which “is due to an enzyme deficiency, leading to higher-than-normal levels of methemoglobin in the blood – a form of hemoglobin—that overwhelms the normal hemoglobin, which reduces oxygen capacity. Less oxygen in the blood makes it a chocolate-brown color instead of red, causing the skin to appear blue instead of white.”

As a result of this hereditary disorder, to the folks of Troublesome Creek, Cussy Mary is Colored and therefore to be feared, for touching her could turn the one who touches her blue as well. The people are ignorant and prejudiced. Fortunately, not all of the people on Cussy Mary’s book route fear her; in fact, they look forward to her weekly visits because they too are starved for books.

Eula Foster and Harriet Hardin, the two librarians in the town who run the Pack Horse Library Project, are two of the most vicious people Cussy Mary encounters. All of the pack librarians must pick up and return their books and magazines to the office Foster and Hardin run. Once a month, the pack librarians also help uncrate the new shipment of materials and box up the previous shipment for return.

In addition to the general prejudice Cussy Mary experiences, Preacher Vester Frazier presents a constant fear. Though he calls himself a preacher, he is nothing more than a lecherous, drunken lout. He wishes to find Cussy Mary alone on one of her trails and rape her in the misguided belief that making her pregnant with his child will cure her of her blueness. Or perhaps he has no misguided beliefs, but is simply a predator, a more likely assumption.

Richardson gives readers a clear picture of life for the people of the hills. Readers learn to look forward to Cussy Mary’s visits to the individuals on the route as much as Cussy Mary herself. Cussy Mary’s self-effacing ways lead people to trust her. Even moonshiner Devil John, who tells Cussy Mary to stop bringing reading materials because his family is behind on chores and his wife is not getting food on the table on time, gives in when Cussy Mary quietly shows him Boys’ Life and a scrapbook she has prepared that has recipes and homemaking hints in it. She convinces Devil John when she shows him “Mrs. Hamilton’s husband also has a dandy tip on picking the best witch sticks in there? Real good diviner tips, sir.” Finally, Devil John concedes that Cussy Mary can bring “the canning and recipe books after planting and harvest. Only that. Only then.

That exchange is one that Richardson must have read about in journals of some of the pack librarians. Here’s an excerpt from Josephine’s Journal: “Despite its problems, and the ongoing shortage of materials, the Pack Horse Library Project was considered a rousing success story. But success sometimes carried with it other problems. For instance, one family complained that their son’s new nightly reading habits meant they had to purchase more lamp oil. Another parent grew irate over the fact that he could not get his children to do their chores because all they wanted to do was sit and read.”

The picture below is from the WPA Pack Horse Library Project:

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Richardson’s research into the Pack Horse Librarian Project is evident throughout the book. She takes the history and brings it alive through her characters. Richardson lives in KY. She is “advocate for the prevention of child abuse and domestic violence.” The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is her fourth novel. Published in May 2019, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek is already an Oprah’s Buzziest Book Picks for May, an Indie Next Pick, a LibraryReads Pick, and Southern Independent Book Alliance Pick.

At Richardson’s Web site, https://www.kimmichelerichardson.com/, readers can learn more about the author and her books. She also has “built a tiny home in the wilds of Kentucky to create a writers’/artists’ residency, named Shy Rabbit.” See her site for the complete information on applying.

From Kirkus Reviews: “A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.” Richardson prefaces The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek with a quotation from T.S. Eliot: “The very existence of libraries affords the best evidence that we may yet have hope for the future of man.”

Read more about the Pack Horse Librarian Project at this link: http://www.kywcrh.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/WPA-Project-pack-horse-librarians-in-kentucky-1936-43.pdf.

 

 

 

 

The Book Whisperer Offers Some Suggestions for Good Reading

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Does your to be read (TBR) stack look like the one below?

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Perhaps your TBR stack looks like the next picture.

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Let me add to your TBR stack; see the suggestions that follow.

Readers are generally looking for that next great book to read. Today’s blog centers on a variety of novels. Out of the books described here, readers will find something of interest. Perhaps a contemporary love story gone wrong will be the ticket, or a book in which two characters in different countries become friends through letters will intrigue a reader. The books in this blog post cover a range of places, people, and time.

Jones

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones received a great deal of praise. In An American Marriage, Celestial and Roy seem destined for great happiness throughout their married life. An up and coming young professional, Roy has such a good job that he persuades Celestial to quit her day job in order to be an artist full time. Without warning, Roy and Celestial find their lives turned upside down when Roy is not only accused of a terrible crime he did not commit, but he is also found guilty and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison.  How can the marriage survive if the two cannot even be together? Even when Roy’s sentence is over-turned after five years, the damage has been done. Or has it? An American Marriage offers a compelling story of loss and recovery, although not the way a reader may expect at first.

Kiernan

The next book takes place in war-torn Normandy in 1944. Stephen P. Kiernan, author of The Hummingbird and The Curiosity, has written a book about courage in the face of great danger, about optimism, and about the way humans overcome even the most horrid of terrors. The Baker’s Secret features Emma who is the village baker, having learned from Ezra Kuchen, a master baker. The Germans occupy the town and discover Emma’s fragrant bread. The Nazi leader gives Emma extra flour each day so she can bake a dozen baguettes. What the occupiers do not know is that Emma adds ground straw to stretch the dough even further. And Emma also works in resistance at great peril to her own life.

Penny

A book set in contemporary Quebec is next on my list: The Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny, the latest Chief Inspector Gamache detective story. Chief Inspector Gamache is involved in yet another intriguing murder mystery. To add to the story, Chief Inspector Gamache is still under suspension for allowing a large supply of lethal drugs to slip into the country. His plan is to catch the supplier as well as the manufacturer of the drugs, not merely the one supply of drugs. Unfortunately, others do not share his vision and feel he has unleased a terrible plague on the city. In the Washington Post, Maureen Corrigan, reviewer extraordinaire, calls The Kingdom of the Blind “a spellbinder… another outstanding Gamache adventure… ingenious… what more could a mystery reader — or any reader for that matter – want?” And for those readers not yet introduced to Louise Penny, they have a treat in store if they begin with the first book: Still Life.

Miller

Circe by Madeline Miller takes readers on a journey in quite a different place from Quebec. Miller retells Circe’s story according to Alexandra Alter in The New York Times “recasting the most infamous female figure from the Odyssey as a hero in her own right.” When Circe discovers her own witchcraft power, Zeus banishes her. Little does he know, that on that deserted island, Circe works to become more powerful. Circe has garnered a number of awards including being named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Washington Post, People, Time, and Kirkus.

Pearce

Another debut novel, Dear Mrs. Bird by A.J. Pearce takes place in 1940 in London. Bombs are falling night after night. Emmy and Bunty, childhood friends from a village near London now live in London. Bunty works for the war office typing up memos. Emmy works in a law office, but she dreams of becoming a war correspondent. She answers an ad which she believes is for the newspaper. She learns the job is a typist for Mrs. Bird who answers questions that are then published in The Woman’s Friend, a magazine owned by the same company that owns the newspaper. Mrs. Bird is quite proper and insists that Emmy must throw away all letters containing anything unpleasant. Emmy feels those people with unpleasant questions are the ones who need help the most. Pearce found inspiration in reading letters to advice columnists in the 1940s, Agony Aunts, they are called. As one might imagine, Emmy cannot resist replying to some of the letters. Trouble, obviously ensues. In addition to her trouble at work, Emmy and Bunty must navigate the war-torn streets each day going to and from work and home. People suggests that fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society will enjoy Dear Mrs. Bird. I agree.

Watch for more good fiction from the Book Whisperer in the next blog.

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