Thursday, October 15, 2015

WSJ Picks Gilead, True to Form by Elizabeth Berg, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and Good Night, Mr Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan

I've had a copy of Gilead for a long time, and I haven't been able to get into it, though I know that it's a wonderful novel. Now that I know that Geraldine Brooks and dear POTUS Obama are both fans, I will have to renew my efforts to read Gilead.
Marilynne Robinson's Gilead is WSJ Book Club Pick
 Geraldine Brooks, author most recently of The Secret Chord and host this
month of the WSJ Book Club, has chosen Marilynne Robinson's
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead as the book club's latest pick, the
Wall Street Journal reported.

Over the next several weeks, the WSJ Book Club will be reading Gilead
(Picador), with discussion questions posted on the Journal's Speakeasy
blog. Readers are invited to join the conversation on the club's
Facebook page, orfollow along on Twitter with the hashtag #WSJBookClub Brooks will ultimately join the club for a live video chat about the novel.

"The language is exquisite," Brooks said of Gilead. "The observations
are breathtaking and so original and unexpected. I think there's some
pyrotechnics in here, but it's virtuosity rather than showing off. It's
a masterpiece of voice. And it's very challenging to do what she's done.
She created an entirely good, entirely sympathetic protagonist who at
the same time is fully human and deeply sympathetic and wholly
plausible. So you really feel that you know this John Ames and you're on
his side in the world. And I think her exacting depiction of what it
feels like to love a child, the totality of that love--I don't know of
anybody else who's captured that so perfectly."

Even President Barack Obama is a Gilead fan
In a recent conversation with Robinson that is being published in the
New York Review of Books, he said: "I first picked up Gilead, one of
your most wonderful books, here in Iowa.... And I've told you this--one
of my favorite characters in fiction is a pastor in Gilead, Iowa, named
John Ames, who is gracious and courtly and a little bit confused about
how to reconcile his faith with all the various travails that his family
goes through. And I was just--I just fell in love with the character,
fell in love with the book, and then you and I had a chance to meet when
you got a fancy award at the White House. And then we had dinner and our
conversations continued ever since."
I just read three books that I could not put down, and I'm excited to review them here. The first is Elizabeth Berg's True To Form, the second is Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo and the third is Good Night, Mr Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan. 

True to Form by Elizabeth Berg was a garage sale find, and, as I've read 5 or 6 of her other books, I thought I'd be safe grabbing a copy of this one. Berg has a way of getting into the nooks and crannies of her characters that I really enjoy. Her prose is always top notch and her plots never lag. Here's the blurb:
Katie Nash — the beloved heroine of Elizabeth Berg's previous novels Durable Goods and Joy School — is thirteen years old in 1961, and she's facing a summer full of conflict. Her father has enlisted her in two care-taking jobs — baby-sitting for the rambunctious Wexler boys and, equally challenging, looking after Mrs. Randolph, her elderly, bedridden neighbor. To make matters worse, Katie has been forcibly inducted into the "loser" Girl Scout troop, compliments of her only new friend Cynthia's controlling mother. Her only saving grace is a trip to her childhood hometown in Texas, to visit her best friend Cherylanne. But people and places change — and Cherylanne is no exception. When an act of betrayal leaves Katie wondering just what friends are really for, she learns to rely on the only one left she can trust: herself.
Full of the joys, anguish, and innocence of American adolescence, True to Form is a story sure to make readers remember and reflect on their own moments of discovery and self-definition.

Katie is something of a typical teenager, in that she wants attention and to be popular and to grow up fast and be what she feels is mature, which is a type of freedom most teenagers long for but don't really understand. When she betrays her friend Cynthia just to be popular with her private school's "in" crowd, though it's a mean and cruel way to treat a friend, I understood why Katie didn't think about it because she was caught up in a quest for popularity and wasn't thinking beyond that, about the feelings of the friend she'd hurt. Having been on the "hurt friend" side of this equation more than a few times as a teenager, I understood the anguish on both sides. Having been in a girl scout troop with my mother as a co-leader, I also understood the reluctance of both Cynthia and Katie to belong to a troop once they were teenagers. A very heartfelt and engaging novel, I'd give this one an A and a recommendation to anyone who remembers adolescence and all it's trials and tribulations.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo sounded like my kind of fantasy novel, though I've not had the chance to read the authors "Grisha" trilogy. Here's the blurb from Publisher's Weekly:
When the score of a lifetime presents itself, criminal mastermind Kaz Brekker assembles a crack team of talented outcasts. Their mission: to rescue a prisoner from the most secure prison in the world, so that the secrets he holds can be exploited by the right people. As Kaz and his compatriots put together a daring plan, they contend with old grudges, mistrust, lingering secrets, and deadly rivalries. Naturally, things go wrong once they start their mission, and now they must escape the very prison they sneaked into. Bardugo expands on the world of her Grisha trilogy with this series opener, which marries heist and action conventions with magic and mystery. Her characters are damaged, complex, and relatable, and her worldbuilding is ambitiously detailed. As various characters’ backstories unfold, Bardugo reveals intriguing new depths and surprises. This has all the right elements to keep readers enthralled: a cunning leader with a plan for every occasion, nigh-impossible odds, an entertainingly combative team of skilled misfits, a twisty plot, and a nerve-wracking cliffhanger.

This first book in the series reminded me of the Lies of Locke Lamora/Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch, only taken down a notch and written in YA fashion with less cursing and more decency or honor among thieves, if that's possible. PW is right in that Bardugo's characters are stand-outs, with each chapter told from a different character POV. Normally I find that device disconcerting and annoying, but Bardugo manages to work miracles and make a cohesive story told with each character weaving into the narrative without a hiccup in the plot, which races along on greased wheels. The book itself is beautifully produced, with illustrated end papers and black edges to the pages. With such a lucious introduction to Bardugo's world, I find that I've now added the first book in her Grisha trilogy to my wish list, and I look forward to reading the next book in this series as well. I would love to discuss more about the relationship Nina and Matthias, Kaz and the Wraith, but the more I discuss the more spoilers will present themselves, and I would hate to ruin such a wonderful reading experience for anyone else. A solid A for this magnificent book, with a recommendation to anyone who enjoyed The Night Circus or the Gentlemen Bastards series, or really any fantasy series with a crew of magnificent misfits in it. 

Good Night, Mr Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan was a book that I knew I'd love, because there is nothing about PG "Plum" Wodehouse's books that I don't adore. The fact that the book is set in the Midwest from the turn of the century to 1961 was also intriguing, and then that the main character was a bibliophile sealed the deal for me, as I love reading about others who love to read.
Here's the blurb:
“Life could toss your sanity about like a glass ball; books were a cushion. How on Earth did non-readers cope when they had nowhere to turn?”
Nell Stillman’s road is not easy. When her boorish husband dies soon after they move to the small town of Harvester, Minnesota, Nell is alone, penniless yet responsible for her beloved baby boy, Hillyard. Not an easy fate in small-town America at the beginning of the twentieth century.
In the face of nearly insurmountable odds, Nell finds strength in lasting friendships and in the rich inner life awakened by the novels she loves. She falls in love with John Flynn, a charming congressman who becomes a father figure for Hillyard. She teaches at the local school and volunteers at the public library, where she meets Stella Wheeler and her charismatic daughter Sally. She becomes a friend and confidant to many of the girls in town, including Arlene and Lark Erhardt. And no matter how difficult her day, Nell ends each evening with a beloved book.
The triumphant return of a great American storyteller, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse celebrates the strength and resourcefulness of independent women, the importance of community, and the transformative power of reading.
Nell Stillman was such a wonderful woman, so kind and generous of heart, I was dismayed that so many people that she loved died, and that she had to struggle so much throughout her life. The prose in this novel is down home-style, as heartfelt and enthralling as the characters. Having lived in small towns in Iowa for the first 23 years of my life, I recognized the people who populated this novel, as if they were my own relatives, whom many of them resembled. My father was a teacher for many years, so I also recognize Nell's joy in being able to instill a love of reading in many generations of third graders, and pointing others toward the joys of Mr Wodehouse's witty and comic novels, among them the famed Bertie and Jeeves stories that were brought to life by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. My one tiny quibble with the novel is that we never find out who was writing Nell the vile notes over the years, especially when all signs pointed to Gus the German and then Sullivan puts us off the scent of that conclusion, only to not leave us with any more clues as to his or her identity. Still, other than that, this is what I consider the Great American Novel, one that tells the history of a town and its people in such a way that you fell that you could drive there and meet them all after reading the book. I couldn't put the book down, and I'd recommend this A+ novel to anyone who loves PG Wodehouse, the Midwest and excellent storytelling. 

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