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WV Book Team: Must-reads before the West Virginia Book Festival

By By Elizabeth Fraser and Dana Smook
WV Book Team

We librarians have been joyfully anticipating the return of the West Virginia Book Festival, coming up this month on Oct. 23 and 24. The Book Festival, a special celebration full of literary delights, is close to our hearts.

This year’s lineup of authors is incredible. It includes: Neil Gaiman, Jodi Picoult, Jeff Shaara, Jacqueline Woodson, and Homer Hickam. On Friday, there will be writing workshops by Jane Friedman, Fran Simone and Cat Pleska. The 2015 McCreight Lecture featuring renowned historian Eric Foner will take place on Thursday night before the Festival officially kicks off. A complete West Virginia Book Festival schedule can be found online at wvbookfestival.org.

So with an astounding Book Festival lineup like this, how do you choose which books to read beforehand? We have some suggestions.

Neil Gaiman is famously flexible in form and genre, an inventive modern master with works that range from novels to comics to screenplays to picture books. While he’s always experimenting in his writing, many of Gaiman’s readers will return again and again to the novel “Neverwhere.” In this gritty modern fairytale, an ordinary businessman named Richard has his universe turned upside down when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. Through helping the girl, named Door, Richard discovers the fantastic world of “London Below,” a shadowy underground city of forgotten people and things. Richard’s own life literally disappears as he makes his way deeper into the dangerous realm of London Below. Wonderful, and at times frightening, “Neverwhere” is a classic, brooding urban fantasy which might remind you of a very dark “Alice in Wonderland.” If you’ve never read a book by Gaiman, “Neverwhere” is an excellent place to start.

In “Gods and Generals,” Jeff Shaara brings details of the Civil War vividly to life. “Gods and Generals” is a prequel to the 1974 Pulitzer Prize winner “The Killer Angels,” a classic epic about the Battle of Gettysburg, written by Jeff Shaara’s father, Michael Shaara. With Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara does a brilliant job of continuing his father’s legacy. This gripping novelization of early Civil War history gives readers a direct, personal feel for what it was like to be in the War. One of the most compelling things about the book is that you get points of view from the soldiers fighting on the front lines, as well as from the war leaders in power. History and Civil War buffs of course love Jeff Shaara’s work, but even if you aren’t particularly interested in history, you will be highly entertained by “Gods and Generals” while you learn something new. Though the books do complement each other, you needn’t read “The Killer Angels” to enjoy “Gods and Generals.” It is a great standalone novel.

Jacqueline Woodson has a way of handling difficult subjects with unusual clarity and profundity. She’s won a Coretta Scott King Award, a National Book Award, and four Newbery Honors. With plenty of winners to choose from in her repertoire, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But if you must make us choose, we’ll recommend “If You Come Softly.” It is the story of two outsider kids attending a fancy Manhattan prep school. Jerimiah is a black teen from Brooklyn whose parents have recently separated. Ellie is an upper-middle-class white girl dealing with issues at home too. When the two meet, its love at first sight. The intensity of their emotions will leave your heart fluttering. Woodson’s beautiful, lyrical writing sets the tone of young love perfectly. Can their relationship survive in a flawed society? A tragic, heartbreaking climax adds to the power of this beautiful book.

At Kanawha County Public Library, we remember when Jodi Picoult’s “My Sister’s Keeper” was released, because so many patrons scrambled to place holds on it. At that time, in 2004, Picoult’s popularity had been rising for years, but it seemed to us that this was a crowd favorite. In “My Sister’s Keeper,” protagonist Anna is a 13-year-old girl who was conceived as a bone marrow match for her older sister. Anna endures countless medical procedures so that her sister, Kate, can fight the leukemia she’s battled since childhood. When Anna realizes that she is expected to donate a kidney as a last-ditch effort to save her sister’s life, and that the surgery will have lasting effects for her, she fights for medical emancipation. Coming into her own, questioning why her life must be defined by her sister’s, Kate goes to court to battle her parents’ medical decisions. Picoult handles a ripped-from-the-headlines plotline with great sensitivity. “My Sister’s Keeper” was also made into a movie in 2009.

In November of 1998, a retired NASA engineer and first-time author stood in the Main Library’s Ray Room to talk about his new book. Many of his friends and family had driven up from Coalwood to listen, and to tell tales about him. The author was Homer Hickam, and the book was “Rocket Boys.” This memoir is set during the Cold War’s Space Race, started by the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957. During this extraordinary time in history, in the small mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, Hickam and his friends fall in love with rocketry. Together, they set up the “Big Creek Missile Agency,” and the book chronicles the evolution of their projects. “Rocket Boys” depicts Hickam’s struggles in a dying mining town, but it is also a celebration of the local characters who assisted with his wild projects. Most West Virginians are quite familiar with Hickam, as “Rocket Boys” became a No. 1 bestseller and inspired the hit movie “October Sky.” But whether you haven’t read this book at all, or whether it’s just been a few years, now is a great time to revisit Hickam’s touching and inspirational story set in a fascinating time of U.S. and West Virginia history.

The West Virginia Book Festival creates the perfect opportunity for us to read outside of our comfort zones, as well as to reconsider some old favorites. This year’s author lineup certainly offers something for everyone. So let this list inspire your reading in preparation for our state’s biggest weekend for book lovers.

Need more recommendations? Get in touch with your friendly local librarian! We’re always glad to help you pick out a great book. Contact the main branch of the Kanawha County Public Library at 304-343-4646 or visit www.kanawhalibrary.org.

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