I was once advised not to make my hobby into my career, because that would be the end of the fun. That’s not our experience as reviews editors at LJ. We were big readers before we got here, and the never-ending stream of titles coming across our desks hasn’t dulled the fascination, nor stopped the fun, one bit. We each have our own “beat,” but books swap hands like nobody’s business, and as anyone who reads our weekly post “What We’re Reading” (see reviews.libraryjournal.com) can tell, we don’t limit ourselves to “books for work.” Below you’ll find that among the upcoming titles we’re looking forward to, media editor Stephanie Klose, for example, recommends a crafting book, Margaret Heilbrun (who has many hats, not one of them memoir) urges you to try a pet memoir, and Liz French, whose day job is covering nonfiction, is enjoying a long-anticipated novel.—Henrietta Thornton-Verma
Millrose & memoir
My picks relate to my memories, experiences, and wishes. I suppose that’s true of most of our reading choices. First, the memory. When my brother and I were kids, my father would take us to the annual Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden—and I’m not talking about that eyesore that bills itself as “the world’s greatest arena.” I mean the previous iteration on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th streets, already a sad enough replacement for the lovely building built by Stanford White on Madison Square Park, where he was killed by his mistress’s husband Harry Thaw—but I’m getting away from my subject. The Millrose Games were (and still are) an annual track meet most famous for the running of the Wanamaker Mile, but what amused my brother and me no end was the other competitive mile, the Mile Walk.
So, for memory’s sake, I pick Mathew Alegeo’s Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport (Chicago Review, Apr.), where we learn about the provenance of race walking—pedestrianism was its etymologically natural first term. As with horse racing, pedestrianism began as a mechanism for betting: take on a wager that you can walk 100 miles in under 22 hours; or conversely, predict if Lincoln or Breckinridge will win the 1860 election, with the loser to walk from Boston to Washington in ten consecutive days to watch the inauguration. “Walking matches” started to attract large crowds and large purses of prize money. There were pedestriennes as well. Algeo (Harry Truman’s Excellent Adventure) focuses on the amateur sport’s golden age from 1860 to 1881.
From walking quickly to sitting rather still—at a desk in a partitioned space. Nikil Saval, editor at n+1, the print and online magazine, looks at the history of such spaces in Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace (Doubleday, Apr.). He ranges far and deep as he places our experience of “the office” in full perspective—urban, architectural, social, and cultural—from its 19th-centry urban roots, through the complicit architecture of 20th-century skyscrapers, to the offices of tomorrow. Of course you’ll encounter Bartleby. And Mad Men. Yes, the movie of The Best of Everything gets a mention (although Stephen Boyd’s wondrous cleft chin is apparently deemed irrelevant), but you’ll also learn about Scientific Office Management (1917) and the Action Office of 1964. I can’t wait to dig into Saval’s book when I have leisure to read it—away from the office.
Wishes. Ever since I can remember, I’ve longed to become close friends with a smallish wild animal. It will never happen—as well it shouldn’t. Author Martin Windrow lived for 15 years with a Tawny Owl he named Mumble. She had never been a creature of the wild (he is careful to remind readers about laws protecting wild animals). She was hatched in a licensed aviary. I avoid pet memoirs because I think they’re all too sentimental, yet I’m drawn to Windrow’s memoir, The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar: Living with a Tawny Owl (Farrar, Jun.). Windrow is military editor of Osprey Publishing in the UK. If anyone can deliver a memoir about a deeply felt relationship with an undomesticated animal without turning it into treacle, I thought, it is the military editor of Osprey Publishing, who is the author of several works of history including The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam. (Had he been the founder of Osprey Publishing perhaps he would have named it after a different bird of prey.)
Windrow’s deeply distilled writing about his years with Mumble—she died 20 years ago—displays descriptive gifts about animals and their effects upon us that I happily compare with E.B. White’s in his essays.
And, so, with a vision of hurrying walkers racing through a maze of cubicles with owls perched above surveying the silly scene, I bring my contribution to Editors’ Picks to a close.—Margaret Heilbrun
Poor Lacey Flint. She was stalked, brainwashed, and attacked in Sharon Bolton’s three previous series installments. In A Dark and Twisted Tide (Minotaur, Jun.), she’s no longer a detective, instead having become a member of the marine policing unit and living on a houseboat on the Thames. She thinks her life will be calmer going forward, but then she finds a shrouded body in the river, a corpse that police believe was left for her. Bolton, who previously published using her initials rather than her first name, turns out dependably well-plotted, well-written crime novels that have actually made me miss my subway stop. I can’t wait to get my hands on this one.
That Jessica Pigza’s BiblioCraft (STC, Mar.) is beautifully designed and full of both doable and aspirational projects by some of the hugest names in the craft world (Natalie Chanin and Gretchen Hirsch, for example) would have been more than enough for me to keep an eye on its release date. But since all of the projects were inspired by holdings in the New York Public Library’s Rare Books Division and the author, herself a librarian, shares tips for navigating library collections for one’s own inspiration, I’m positively drooling. [See the review and Q&A with the author, LJ 2/1/14.]
Rainbow Rowell’s YA novels Eleanor & Park and Fangirl were on practically every year-end list of the best 2013 had to offer—including my own. I can’t wait to read her Landline (St. Martin’s, Jul.), a novel for adults, in which a television writer whose marriage is on the rocks finds a way to communicate with her husband in the past. Will she be able to head off some of their problems—or the marriage itself—before they start? Plots about people reevaluating their marriages don’t generally appeal to me, but if Rowell’s other books are anything to go by, this one will be a fresh take on the subject, with realistic characters with whom I’ll end up developing profound (though obviously one-sided) emotional connections.—Stephanie Klose
The setting: Ireland, post–real estate crash. Bobby Mahon always worked hard and did the right thing; when he became foreman of Pokey Burke’s construction firm he thought nothing could stop him. How life has changed. There’s no more work, and Pokey—who, Bobby now realizes, never invested his men’s money in the pension he charged them for—has taken off. Donal Ryan’s The Spinning Heart (Steerforth, Apr.) is the book I can’t stop talking up this season. “Ryan’s startling debut reads like a modern Irish twist on William Faulker’s As I Lay Dying,” said our reviewer John G. Matthews, so it’s no wonder this debut won book of the year at the Irish Book Awards (and if Ryan doesn’t make it worldwide, I give up). More anecdotally, I gave the title to my colleague Kathy Ishizuka, who loaned it to her husband; he won’t give it back because he needs a week, he says, to digest it before reading it again.
The Spinning Heart’s language is stunning, and its characters—the cheaters, sorry only to have been caught; the cheated, wrenching to gaze upon in their broken-heartedness; and the spectators dragged into the grimy mess—are all fully, and very memorably, realized in a spare 160 pages. In the opening chapter, for example, which is narrated by Bobby, Ryan uses almost no punctuation except periods, even in dialog, creating a flatness of tone that reflects his characters’ numbed emotions.
Steerforth’s publisher, Chip Fleischer, describes Ryan as “the real deal” and tells LJ that the author’s second book, The Thing About December, is already out in Ireland and was a finalist for novel of the year at the Irish Book Awards. It follows a year in the life of Johnsey, who inherits a farm he can’t manage, during Ireland’s boom time, which is well and truly over. The book, which the publisher says “breathes with Johnsey’s bewilderment, humor, and agonizing self-doubt,” will be on U.S. shelves in August.
Grouchy men who’ve been done in by love but just need the right woman to bring them around are a mainstay of romances. The title character in Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Algonquin, Apr.)—think Don Tillman in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, or Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets—is just such a man. The love of his life has died, and he’s hiding from the world in his bookstore on Alice Island, off the New England coast, intending to live out his life in solitude (and he’s only 39). The right woman, a publisher’s rep, no less, does come along, but this novel by Zevin (The Hole We’re In; Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac) is different from most with that trajectory. The love story that ensues is a natural outgrowth of character development—and there are many rich characters here—and is so entwined with other well-developed subplots that it’s often reduced to a pleasant background detail. A.J.’s daughter is at times too precocious (learning alphabetical order at age two? Really?), but if you can overlook this minor problem, you’re in for an absorbing read that will especially tickle those who have been on the receiving end of publishers’ sales pitches.—Henrietta Thornton-Verma
As I examine the array of new books coming up this season, I’m engulfed in mixed emotions—amazement and excitement at all the new offerings but also a pang of sadness as I bid LJ so long and embark upon a new position at sister publication School Library Journal. Looking ahead to the young adult and children’s literature in my future, I’m particularly struck by how many great crossover titles there are, or books that slyly inhabit the border between teen and adult audiences.
Manga, horror movies, pop music, fashion, and accessories are all popular Japanese topics and trends. Brian Ashcraft and Shoko Ueda tackle all of the above—and more—through the well-known trope of the schoolgirl in Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential: How Teenage Girls Made a Nation Cool (Tuttle, Apr.). The authors explore aspects of trends such as blazers and skirt lengths and provide interviews with pop stars emulating the schoolgirl look. Whether your preferred schoolgirl is more the upstanding heroine Sailor Moon or the vengeful, weapon-wielding Gogo Yubari of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1, you’ll come away well versed.
An even bigger cultural trend? K-Pop! Mark James Russell’s photo-heavy K-Pop Now! The Korean Music Revolution (Tuttle, Mar.) is bursting with profiles of hot new Korean pop artists: Wonder Girls, Brown Eyed Girls, Busker Busker, and, of course, Psy, best known for his YouTube-fueled smash “Gagnam Style.” This fun, colorful examination of a craze will appeal to die-hard fans looking for the latest info on their favorite groups, as well as to those merely curious about the trend.
Gene Luen Yang (Boxers and Saints) and artist Sonny Liew have written an alternate history of sorts with Shadow Hero (First Second, Jul.), a graphic novel that relates the tale of the first Asian American superhero. During the 1940s, artist Chu Hing created the Green Turtle. According to rumor, after the artist’s predictably conservative publishers nixed his plan to make the superhero Asian American, he came up with an ingenious way to skirt the issue: drawing the Green Turtle so that his face was almost never visible to the reader, allowing Hing to conceive of his hero as he wished. The comic was canceled before Hing had the chance to reveal his hero’s identity, but in this gorgeous, nostalgia-soaked work, Yang and Liew have finally gotten the Green Turtle ready for his close-up.
Yang rarely shies away from uncomfortable imagery or stereotypes, and here he again deftly examines Asian American experiences. Weaving historical context with caped crusaders and injecting his trademark humor, Yang tells the story of a young man living in 1940s Chinatown whose quest for greatness is born when his overbearing mother, recently rescued by a superhero, decides that her son’s future is in saving the world. A superlative revisiting of the Golden Age of Comics.
Before I shed the mantle of cookbooks review editor, I must highlight Ashley English’s Handmade Gatherings (Roost, Apr.), a compilation of potluck recipes by season that the book’s editor, Jennifer-Urban Brown, calls “a celebration of connecting to one another through sharing our favorite foods, our stories, and ourselves.” English merges dishes with party ideas, and having sampled her spiced apple pound cake, I can say with confidence that it’s just what readers need for parties as they look to spring and outdoor events.—Mahnaz Dar
If there’s any theme to my three picks, it would be “transgressive.” I love reading about so-called bad girls (and oh, yes, those bad boys)—the more outré the better. They certainly make compelling characters, and reading a well-written novel (or bio) about misfits, outsiders, and outliers is the perfect “armchair rebel” experience.
It took me forever to screw up the courage to crack open Emma Donoghue’s 2010 breakout best seller, Room—I was worried that the subject matter would be too heavy and depressing. Yes, it was an intense reading experience, but what a fantastic book. I’m still thinking about it.
When I read in Barbara Hoffert’s November 1 Prepub Alert that Donoghue was writing an 1870s-set novel, Frog Music (Little, Brown, Mar.), and that a 200,000-copy first printing and a ten-city tour were planned, my heart leapt. The starred LJ review in the January 2014 issue sealed the deal: calling the book “genre-defying,” Sally Bissell dubbed Frog Music “a murder mystery, a feminist manifesto, and a human interest story” that “would likely be compared to Donoghue’s well-received Slammerkin.”
Making a note to add Slammerkin to my TBR pile, I decided to check out Frog Music—and it is very, very good. Not in the same scared-to-turn-the-page way as Room but equally as deep, thought-provoking, and complex. The lead characters—a female cross-dressing frog catcher and a French prostitute/dancer—are achingly real and flawed in all the best ways.
Like Room, this book pushes the theme of “the evil that men do,” but this time Donoghue is more balanced in her approach, and her male characters’ motivations are easier to understand. The setting is done well, too. Donoghue transports the reader to the hot, squalid, smallpox-infested streets of San Francisco during the heat wave of 1876, and she makes you care about two young women who struggle against society’s strictures.
The music business is full of rebels, both real and not so much, but indie rocker Alex Chilton is definitely a poster child for “I did it my way.” In the 1960s, he began his career literally at the top of the charts, as 16-year-old front man for the Memphis-based Box Tops. He soon tired of that life and its restrictions, however, and went on to form the seminal rock band Big Star, which (rather like the Velvet Underground) influenced many bands but was not commercially successful. In the 1980s, Chilton became something of an icon for the alternate-rock crowd, as a solo artist, trendsetter, and record producer. He died in 2010. Author Holly George-Warren, a rock journalist and coeditor of The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, was acquainted with Chilton. A Man Called Destruction (Viking, Mar.) is her biography of the iconoclastic, often contrarian and elusive musician. The first to examine Chilton solo (there have been a few books and documentaries about Big Star), George-Warren’s thorough, informative book will delight hard-core fans and anybody who likes a good downward-mobility/redemption story. This rabid fan loved it!
Speaking of iconoclastic rockers who influenced many—and of Rolling Stone contributors—I also look forward to reading Rolling Stone writer Will Hermes’s upcoming bio of the late Lou Reed, Velvet Underground cofounder and so much more, which Farrar will publish. The date is unannounced as yet, but it may be released this year.—Liz French
Love and loss
I rarely miss an opportunity to work with Avon on a project pitched by Pam Spengler-Jaffee. And I always read Eloisa James’s new books. Timing is everything, which is why I grabbed the arc of James’s latest, Three Weeks with Lady X (Avon, Apr.). In James’s A Duke of Her Own (LJ 8/09), the Duke of Villiers was a rogue who finally met his match in Lady Eleanor. Part of Villiers’s eccentricity stemmed from his acknowledgment of six illegitimate children, the oldest of whom was 12-year-old Juby/Tobias. James now, following a serious illness, a yearlong stay with her family in Paris (and a subsequent memoir), and a fairy tale series, focuses on that boy, who has grown into quite an intriguing man. It’s 1799, and Tobias Dautry, former mudlark (youngsters forced to go into the Thames to pull valuables from the muck below), is now known as Thorn. He is a successful businessman and manufacturies owner, despite his being the son of a duke. Thinking it is time to settle down, Thorn has chosen the beautiful Lady Laetitia Rainsford for his bride, as she is kind, sweet, calm, and uncomplicated, if, as Thorn remarks, “a bit of a noodle.” As a favor to Eleanor, Thorn’s stepmother, Lady Xenobia India St. Clair accepts the commission to renovate Starberry Court, the country house Thorn has purchased for his soon-to-be-betrothed. An independent woman and the daughter of a marquess, India takes on the project, even after meeting Thorn and thinking that making him over into more of a gentleman would not go amiss as well. Taking up where her “Desperate Duchesses” series left off, James has raised the stakes in this Georgian romance. The heat between our “designing” woman and our unapologetic “bastard” is delicious to behold. Well done, Eloisa, well done.
In addition to being a romance junkie, I also get lost in stories that revolve around women and the upheavals that occur in their lives. I actually sensed a theme with two recent picks of mine. Last year, I chose Jennie Shortridge’s Love Water Memory, in which a woman is found on a beach with no memory of who she is or how she got there. In Carol Cassella’s Gemini (S. & S., Mar.; starred review, LJ 2/1/14), a seriously injured Jane Doe is medevaced to a Seattle hospital after being found on a dark road. The ICU staff try to stabilize her while hoping to discover her identity. The prognosis for her recovery is not good. The story focuses on physician Charlotte Reese, her relationship with her writer lover, and the alternating story of two teens in the Olympic Peninsula town of Quentin. Oh, guess all you will—even untangling the threads of this beautiful story will not minimize the depth of the characterizations or the sweet pangs of holding on to love that may now be mostly memory. Addictive and thoroughly affecting.
Finally, I’m looking forward to Robyn Carr’s first volume of women’s fiction, Four Friends (Mira: Harlequin, Apr.), following her very successful “Virgin River” romances and the more recent “Thunder Point” titles. Also, Sarah MacLean will finish off her “Rule of Scoundrels” quartet with the unraveling of the mystery behind gaming hell owner Chase in Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover (Avon, fall 2014). (Congratulations to new mom MacLean). And Victoria Alexander brings us more romantic Victorian hijinks from Millworth Manor in The Scandalous Adventures of the Sister of the Bride (Kensington, May). My romantic heart, be still.—Bette-Lee Fox
Reading and pleasure
The two go together naturally, and always in the mood for more of both, I find myself constantly returning to books that once won me over, however long ago. But the past is just that, and living authors are what I want.
That said, my first pick revolves around James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel that satisfies in every sense, so I was intrigued when I came across Kevin Birmingham’s debut The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin Pr., Jun.), an exquisite account of the 15-year struggle over the book’s publication. Told in an informed and readable narrative style, this biography of a novel wends its way through historical events, beginning with June 16, 1904, the first night Joyce spent with Nora Barnacle, which serves as the genesis of Ulysses and, to use Birmingham’s words, “hovers over everything” that happened thereafter. By 1922, when Shakespeare & Co.’s Sylvia Beach finally published the first edition, Joyce had turned the literary and art world on its head, infuriated governments across continents, and penetrated readers’ consciousness in a way unprecedented.
Birmingham shows how unprepared the world was and how grueling the book’s journey to emancipation. “We take our freedoms to read and write books for granted, and I want readers to see how difficult—and how recent—the fight for literary freedom has been,” Birmingham explained in an email, continuing, “Ulysses is canonical partly because it was contraband. Its legalization made so many things possible for the writers who followed.” “The story is important,” Birmingham said, “because of the way it changed modernism and literary freedom, but the long research process is thrilling because of a thousand illuminating details—Ezra Pound’s childhood letter to Santa Claus, a radiograph of Joyce’s bad teeth, the books, maps, and upholstery in the library where Judge Woolsey read Ulysses.” For the professor of history and literature at Harvard University, what made Joyce’s epic so maddening, even to tireless supporters such as Ezra Pound, was the sense that Joyce had lost control—a development that the world would ultimately come to appreciate. It’s not necessary to have read Ulysses to enjoy Birmingham’s battle on behalf of a genius, but those who are familiar with the work will sense the pulse of Joyce, the political exploits that impacted 20th-century censorship laws, and the revolution of art that redefined the cultural and moral fabric of a time. (See an author Q&A at ow.ly/sFi6A.)
If focusing on the events surrounding one novel isn’t enough, or is too much, Michael Schmidt (poetry, Glasgow Univ., writer-in-residence, St. John’s Coll., founder and director, Carcanet Press; Lives of the Poets) offers an eclectic variety in The Novel: A Biography (Harvard Univ., May). At 1,160 pages, this hefty volume features 350 novelists from Canada, Australia, Africa, Britain, Ireland, the United States, and the Caribbean and covers 700 years of storytelling. But Schmidt does something different: while the book is arranged chronologically, the chapters are theme-based (e.g., “The Human Comedy,” “Teller and Tale,” “Sex and Sensibility”) and follow no specific outline, blending author biographies, interviews, reviews, and criticism into fluid narratives. Schmidt’s discussion of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre not only offers an understanding of the Gothic Romance genre but also reveals lesser-known facts about Brontë’s life. In this way, Schmidt fulfills Brontë’s wish to be judged “as an author not as a woman.” This is a compelling edition for writers and other readers alike; a portrayal that is aligned with Edwin Muir’s belief that the “only thing which can tell us about the novel is the novel.”—Annalisa Pesek
“The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid…. This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker. Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.” This astonishing opening scene depicting the birth of a honeybee named Flora immediately sucked me into British playwright Laline Paull’s fantasy The Bees (Ecco, May), and I eagerly followed Flora’s journey as her curiosity and courage drive her ultimately to challenge her hive’s Queen. It was that immersion into a fantastic and hidden world that impelled Ecco editor Lee Boudreaux to buy the manuscript within 24 hours of it hitting her desk.
“It sounded so strange I started reading it on my subway ride home. It was the best kind of reading experience—I’d look up occasionally and it would take me 30 seconds to readjust to the world I was living in.” It is hard to surprise people who read for a living, but this debut novel charmed, seduced, and surprised Boudreaux.
The death of a beekeeper friend, Angie Biltcliffe, inspired Paull to write the book. “Angie spoke about ‘her girls’ with such a sparkle in her eyes that I felt for a great affection for them,” says Paull. What her bee research revealed fascinated the author: “Here was a 40,000-year-old matriarchal society that hardly changed.” Archetypal characters begin to jump out of her imagination, and Paull wrote the first draft in a feverish six weeks, fearful that someone else was penning the same story.
Fans mourned when David Downing last year ended his John Russell espionage series set in World War II Berlin with Masaryk Station, but the British author is not finished with spy fiction. Coming this May is Jack of Spies (Soho Crime), which introduces Jack McColl, a globe-trotting Scottish car salesman and budding spy, as he gathers secret intelligence for His Majesty’s Navy in the German colony of Tsingtau, China. The year is 1913, and the world is on the brink of war.
In choosing to write about World War I in his new series, Downing felt that the previous conflict was more of a game-changer. “I wanted to write a series,” he says, “that reflected the move away from conflicts between established nation states and the increasing importance of the class, gender, and colonial conflicts raging inside them.” Soho is promoting this title with a $150,000 marketing and advertising campaign; a ten-city tour, Downing’s first ever; and a large galley run (5,000 copies).
“David is an author on the verge of breaking out in a major way,” says Soho director of marketing and publicity Paul Oliver, who noted that the final Station book came close to landing on the best sellers lists. “We couldn’t put so much into [the marketing] if we didn’t think the book deserved it. It’s a little sexier than his previous series and yet doesn’t give up any of the meticulous plotting or nuanced political portraiture.”
Readers who enjoyed Tom Perotta’s Little Children will want to try Suzanne Greenberg’s Lesson Plans (Prospect Park, May), an entertaining, funny, and thoughtful debut novel about three California homeschooling families. Publisher Colleen Dunn Bates, a big Perotta fan herself, was really drawn to the manuscript. “I sent it to two trusted outside readers who love a good suburban funny drama, and they gave me a big thumbs-up.”
An accomplished short story writer, Greenberg had a bigger plot that couldn’t be accommodated by that abbreviated format. “I knew it would take a while to give my characters all the breadth they needed to exist on the page,” she explains. While Little Children is not a direct influence on Lesson Plans, Greenberg loves how Perotta gives both weight and humor to the domestic world, elements that she incorporates into her own work.
The luridly dramatic cover for Joanna Higgins’s The Anarchist (Permanent, Apr.) is what first attracted me to her novel about political activist Emma Goldman and her relation to Leon Czolgosz, the Polish anarchist who assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. But I was quickly lured into the dramatic lives of these two figures of American radical politics. Higgins, having grown up on family stories about the tragic Leon, a distant cousin of her mother, originally intended to explore only the mystery of Leon’s actions. But as she researched Goldman and the anarchist movement, the writer realized that Emma was a major part of Leon’s story. “And the more I read, the more I saw emerging that quintessential American theme—the dichotomy between an envisioned ideal and the real world.”
Permanent Press copublisher Martin Shepard has high hopes for this book, the third that Higgins has published with him. “We think she’s got the gift for this sort of thoughtful writing since we first published A Soldier’s Book back in 1998.” That Civil War novel drew critical acclaim and comparisons to MacKinlay Kantor’s 1955 Pulitzer Prize–winning Andersonville. Shepard believes Higgins’s new historical epic will bring her the same readership and accolades that greeted her first novel.—Wilda Williams