Friday Book Whimsy: Be Frank With Me

I approached Be Frank With Me, by Julia Claiborne Johnson, with some trepidation. After all, it was a debut novel in which the title character is 9 years old. Still, it was being compared to Where’d You Go, Bernadette – a book by Maria Semple – that I also approached with trepidation, and that book turned out to be one of my favorite books ever.  So I dug in. I’m still patting myself on my back for my great decision.

Alice Whitley is given an unusual assignment by the publisher for whom she works. She is to become the personal assistant to writer M.M. Banning (called Mimi), who is world-famous for a classic book she wrote when she was a young adult, but she hasn’t written a book since. She lives as a recluse of sorts with her 9-year-old son, Frank.

But the unconventional writer lost her fortune in a Ponzi scheme, and now she is forced to write another novel to pay her bills. Alice will handle her affairs and keep her on target while she writes. One of her main assignments is to take care of Frank.

Frank is not your ordinary 9-year-old. He has a photographic memory, he dresses like he is a movie star straight out of the 30s and 40s, and he has no filter. He says what he thinks and he thinks what he says. He is clearly a genius. While the author never even suggests that he is autistic, it’s what obviously comes to the reader’s mind.

But eccentric though he might be, that same reader will be unable to not fall in love with this child. He is innocent and wise beyond his years. He loves his mother and Mimi loves him right back. It is a sweet – if odd – relationship.

Alice’s fondness for Frank grows throughout the book, and she sets out to learn the secrets in Mimi’s (and therefore, Frank’s) past. Who is Frank’s father? Is it Xander, the odd fellow who shows up on occasion and gives Frank piano lessons? And what has made Mimi not write for so many years?

Like Alice, everyone who reads this book will fall in love with Frank. He is a character I will never forget. I hope Julia Claiborne Johnson doesn’t wait decades to write her next book as did Mimi because I am eagerly awaiting her next book.

Here is a link to the book.

 

Friday Book Whimsy: 2016 Favorites

pile-of-booksMy reading goal every year is 100 books. I’m not sure I have ever hit my goal, but I have come close. For example, in 2015, I read a total of 93 books. I’m afraid in 2016, I was a bit of a slacker, having only read 88 books – a couple of which were, quite honestly, novellas. In my world, they counted! Especially since I’m not graded on quantity. And I’m thankful I’m not rated on quality, because I don’t use the New York Times Book Review for my book choosing. Actually, I’m not graded on anything being retired and all….

Anyway, I post a book review each week, so if you are a faithful Friday Book Whimsy reader, you will be familiar with all of the books I am going to feature as my favorite five books of the year. The books may or may not have been published in 2016; they have just been read by me in the past year.  Frankly, most are books published in earlier years.

My five favorite reads in 2016, in no particular order….

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrick Backman
Britt-Marie is a 60-something woman who leaves her controlling husband after she learns he is having an affair. She is compulsive and entirely set in her ways. She has been since she was a little girl and her much-adored sister is killed in a car accident. It should have been you, is the message that Britt-Marie got regularly from her mom, whether or not it was spoken out loud. So Britt-Marie begins the process of starting a new life. The only job she is able to find is the manager of a recreation center in a very small town. She has spent most of her life taking care of others and has no idea who Britt-Marie is and why anyone would care. But she learns that people do care, and begins to put together a new life where people accept her for who she is.

What I liked best about the book: Britt-Marie. I loved the main character so, so much. The book was entirely feel-good, and who didn’t need that this past year?

The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
The novel examines the invention of the light bulb, and the eventual replacement of gas lighting with electric lights in this entirely readable, eminently fascinating account of the legal battle waged between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse. There is no one less interested in science than I, and yet I found the book to be fascinating. Moore uses real characters such as Edison, Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, and Paul Kravath to give readers a snapshot of life in NYC in the late 1800s and how progress is REALLY made. It unexpectedly provided me with one of my favorite reads of the year.

What I liked best about the book: I love to learn about history and science via novels, as I find that so much easier to read. Moore was able to pique my interest in the notion of inventing and patents. It takes good writing to successfully accomplish that task.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
This novel is everything I would hate in a book. The entire story is told via emails, text messages, flashbacks, school documents, and so forth. There is no driving narrative and virtually no dialogue. It is really all about the characters, but Semple does it so well that this book was a total pleasure to read. I had it in my library for a long time before I finally picked it up and read it, almost straight through. Bernadette is the star of the show, despite her quirky, agoraphobic nature. She is likable and believable. I would like to have her as my best friend. I don’t regularly reread books, but I will read this book again and again.

What I liked best about the book: The author’s characters are the best thing about the novel. Despite the fact that there is no driving narrative, she was able to paint clear and distinct pictures of each character through her unusual writing style.

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah
There is a plethora of novels available about World War II, and lots of good ones. I found The Nightingale to be one of the best I’ve read (and I’ve read more than my share) simply because it offered a different perspective on the awful war. Two sisters from a small village in France experience the war from entirely different perspectives – one as the woman and wife left behind to care as best she can for everyone around her, and one who becomes part of the French resistance. The look at the war from the women’s perspective, as well as Hannah’s beautiful writing, made this one of my favorite reads of 2016.

What I liked best about the book: There are many books – novels and nonfiction alike – about the horrific treatment of the Jews, and about the miserable conditions of the fighting men and women, but I liked reading about what it was like to try and keep your world in order under wartime conditions as the woman back home.

Tiny Little Thing, by Beatriz Williams
Christina “Tiny” Schuyler was the so-called good sister of the three Schuyler girls. She did everything the right way. She was good in school, she married well, and she was the perfect political wife to her ambitious husband. But what is missing is love. It made for a wonderful book with a thoroughly satisfying ending. Tiny Little Thing was the first book I had ever read by author Beatriz Williams, and I have read several since. They almost always have some connection to the Schuyler family, and they are very good. But Tiny Little Thing is my favorite.

What I liked best about the book:  Blackmail, adultery, Vietnam, dirty politics – all wrapped in a 1960s package. It took me a bit to get into the novel, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down.

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Friday Book Whimsy: Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

If I’d known the format of this book – entirely a series of e-mails, flashbacks, school documents, notes, and so forth – I assure you I wouldn’t have picked up this book. I generally know what I’m about to embark upon when I start a book, but I had heard so much about this novel that I dove in unprepared.

I couldn’t possibly be happier that I did, because Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, by Maria Semple, will undoubtedly be one of my favorite books read in 2016.

The characters in a book are very important to me. If I don’t like any of the characters – and in particular, the main character – I am liable to dislike the book. Bernadette Fox is not only likeable, she will be one of my favorite book characters ever. I wish she was a real person and that she was my friend.

Don’t be put off by the format of the book. The author puts it all together so cleverly that it easily reads like a novel despite the lack of chapters and traditional dialogue.

Bernadette seems to have the perfect life. Her husband Elgie is a bigwig at Microsoft Corporation in Seattle. Their daughter Bee is a prodigy, super-smart and funny, despite having been born with a heart defect that nearly killed her as an infant. Bernadette is a prize-winning architect known for “green” design long before anyone even knew what that meant. The marriage is interesting and happy.

But what most people don’t know is that Bernadette is agoraphobic. She does everything possible to avoid having to leave her odd house (originally it was a school and for the most part, nothing has changed despite the fact that the family lives there). She takes Bee to school every day, and does what’s absolutely necessary outside the house. Beyond that, she has a personal assistant (a person somewhere in India she has never met but with whom she communicates via email and text messaging) who literally manages Bernadette’s life, and therefore the life of her family.

What carries this plot, however, and prevents the reader from wanting to dislike Bernadette and her weird life, is Bernadette herself. She is funny as hell and looks at life in a way that is so interesting and quirky. It’s no wonder that Bee loves her mother so very much.

And then, one day, not long before the family was to take a trip to Antartica to reward Bee for her perfect grades, Bernadette vanishes. No one knows why or where. Only Bee is certain that her mother will turn up.

I know this plot sounds weird, but I’m telling you that you can’t help but like Bernadette, and it makes the story fun and interesting. One of my favorite things about Semple’s writing is that, while there are quite a few characters and plot twists, and we only know these characters through emails and other documents, they don’t all sound the same. The reader gets a very good sense of who these people are, for better and for worse.

The ending was clever and satisfying and just the way I would have wanted it.

Please don’t do what I could have easily done – been turned off by the format. I can’t recommend this book enough.

Here is link to the book.

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Friday Book Whimsy: Books I Want to Read in 2014

I am a compulsive reader. In 2013, I read 94 books. Darn. I wanted to hit an even 100. I shouldn’t have taken that time off to go to my grandmother’s funeral. (Oh, don’t judge. I’m just kidding.) Continue reading