Members of LJ/School Library Journal‘s “What We’re Reading” gang are back for more book talk this week, and we’re discussing rule-breaking queens and foodies, outlined protagonists, scary strangers, brother correspondents, and pink roaches, to name a few subjects.
Ellen Abrams, Guest Editor, LJS
The tragic story of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife, is well known to Anglophiles and Tudorologists alike—one would think. However, redoubtable historian Alison Weir has scoured the historical archives with The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn (Ballantine), an entire volume dedicated to the true tale of the one called the Concubine and, more prosaically, “the whore,” even by some of her high-born ladies-in-waiting. Weir unearths backstories and backstabbing, the likes of which readers would be forgiven for not having imagined. The real kicker here is to learn that King Henry had no real intention of offing Anne despite her inability to bear him a son and heir, as he was still attempting to win religious legitimacy of his marriage to her from the pope in the days immediately leading up to her arrest on trumped-up charges of treason and “lechery.” Without giving away too much, the real culprit, the schemer behind the scheme, was a gentleman of Henry’s court who has been lauded in more than one recent historical novel. This is top-drawer history, which reads like historical fiction—where a flirtatious and charming woman is brought low by jealousies, fear, and the willing ear of a frustrated, egomaniacal spouse who leans toward alternative facts.
Mahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
After LJ selected Eowyn Ivey’s To the Bright Edge of the World (Little, Brown) as a Best Book, I was inspired—at long last—to pick up some Joseph Conrad. Another editor had mentioned that Bright Edge was evocative of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, so I was sold. I haven’t yet begun Heart, but I did spend one very intense night devouring Conrad’s short story “The Secret Sharer,” the tale of a captain who invites a most odd stranger on board his ship in the middle of the night. It was unnerving and creepy in all the best ways, so I have high hopes for Heart of Darkness.
Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
As a huge M.F.K. Fisher (1908–92) fan, I am leery of fictionalized accounts of her life—though many would say that’s exactly what the pioneering food writer did with her memoirs and essays. She basically paved the way for all the foodies who crowd onto the airwaves and social media sites and publish their memoirs-cum-cookbooks now. Of course, there were others—Julia Child, James Beard, plenty of French gastronomes—but she was special. I admire her fearlessness, her bohemian spirit, her dry sense of humor. She was a sensualist and free spirit, a lover and fighter, what my mom would call “a good eater,” and experimenter, a figurehead, a provocateur.
But I do go on. All this is to say that I really enjoyed Ashley Warlick’s 1930s-set The Arrangement (Viking), which reimagines a time in Fisher’s life before she became M.F.K. and was still Mary Frances Kennedy when she was coming into her own: beginning to write; beginning to chafe at the limitations of her marriage to Al Fisher, a reluctant professor and blocked poet/writer; beginning to fall in love with Al’s friend, the painter Dillwyn “Tim” Parrish, who was himself married to a young Hollywood starlet. When Mary Frances seduces Tim, she sets in motion several triangular events. The most interesting is when she and Al, who’s unaware of her affair with Tim, move to Switzerland to be nearer to their friend. War is coming, passions are brewing, Fisher is cooking and writing…it’s all delicious and nearly operatic. Warlick obviously has read and reread Fisher’s books, but this is no simple pastiche. The author captures the mood and tempo of the chef’s writing yet goes beyond to craft a very good novel about taking chances and learning to live as one wants to, despite the risks and potential heartbreak.
Daryl Grabarek, Senior Editor, SLJ Reviews
Spying two books about Vincent van Gogh on Liz’s desk earlier this week, I wasn’t able to honor that unspoken rule around the LJ/SLJ office…if it’s on my desk, I’m working on it (subtext: hands off, please). I’m not sure the Dutchman would be on my list of favorite artists, but after finishing Deborah Heiligman’s Vincent and Theo: The van Gogh Brothers (Holt), about his relationship with his younger sibling, Theo, I trotted off to the library to pick up a collection of the brothers’ letters (nearly 700 survived), which I first read years ago and loved. The missives (you can find them online as well) chronicle an enduring emotional and intellectual bond that was often fraught but always supportive and caring. Vincent’s letters are wonderful—offering lots of insight into his life and late 19th-century bohemian Paris. They are full of self-doubt, passion, angst, determination, and often desperate need. His contemporaries (Gauguin, Lautrec, and others) are also featured, so there’s that, too. Heiligman’s book, due out in April, was written for middle-grade and teen readers. I’m currently working on my review for SLJ, but just between us—it’s superb.
Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I don’t often set myself up to read series; if a book has a number in the title, chances are I’ll pass. (Dorothy Dunnett excepted). But I’ve heard so much interesting buzz about Rachel Cusk’s new novel, Transit (Farrar), and recommendations of her previous work from discerning readers of my acquaintance, that my interest was piqued and I picked up her previous book, Outline (Picador). Together with an as-yet-unpublished third, they will form a trilogy about…well, that remains to be seen. The nominal subject of Outline is the narrator, Faye, a recently divorced mother of two teaching in Athens for a summer. “Nominally” because the book is really a study of how a writer shows and doesn’t tell—how she can fashion an entire protagonist out of the negative space created by other characters. Outline is darkly funny and fairly plotless, making its point about self-definition by refusing to define the narrator until she just becomes, like salt crystals that grow overnight or the brown shapes of leaves you find on the sidewalk after the physical versions have blown away. And the supporting characters are annoyingly shallow until you close the book and realize they’ve somehow carved out an existence by virtue of their juxtaposition to Faye. There’s some intriguing authorial sleight-of-hand happening. Plus it triggered these weird little episodes of déjà vu the way a certain pulsing frequency will give people epileptic seizures.
After which, I started Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (Penguin) and encountered this quote a few pages in: “A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.” Other than that, the two books have nothing in common—but that’s a pretty cool cross-novel overflow anyway.
Ashleigh Williams, WWR Emerita
I recently blazed through Daniel José Older’s Bone Street Rumba; now I’m following the new rhythm of Midnight Taxi Tango (Roc: NAL). In this sequel to Rumba, half-dead ghostbuster Carlos Delacruz is trying to get back on the beat after near-death and serious heartbreak. He’s assisted by no-nonsense teenager Kia Summers, protegée at Baba Eddie’s botanica and reluctant spirit bait. Currently, the crew is battling ghouls made of ghastly pink roaches, mysterious gruesome deaths, and vengeful child ghosts. But the abundance of creepy situations and grisly murder is well tempered by some fantastic banter!