Wars, Worlds, Wonders, and Wackos | What We’re Reading

Library Journal and School Library Journal staffers selected a wide swath of reading matter this week, with books about killer scarecrows, scary clowns, not-really-new fairy tales, alternate worlds, remembrances of war, forced marriages, and perfidious characters. And John Lennon returns with a bit of whimsy on the origins of the Beatles.

Mahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, LJ
Lately, it’s been all Khaled Hosseini all the time! After finishing The Kite Runner (Riverhead) last week, I’m currently reading A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead), the story of a teenage Afghan girl who is married off by her father, against her will, to an older man who makes her wear a burka. Hosseini is matter of fact, never overly dramatic, about discussing such a nightmarish situation, and his character seems resigned to, and even content with, her fate, though moments of doubt are slowly emerging.
I’m also still working on Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life (Ecco). I adored this excerpt Norman includes, of a small piece Lennon wrote (before the Beatles “made it”) for a local underground magazine on the Beatles’ origins:

Once upon a time there were three little boys called John, George and Paul, by name christened. They decided to get together because they were the getting together type. When they were together they wondered what for after all, what for? So all of a sudden they grew guitars and fashioned a noise. Funnily enough, no one was interested, least of all the three little men. So-o-o-o on discovering a fourth even littler man called Stuart Sutcliffe running about them they said, quote “Sonny get a bass guitar and you will be alright” and he did–but he wasn’t alright because he couldn’t play it. So they sat on him with comfort ’til he could play. Still there was no beat, and a kindly old man said, quote “Thou hast not drums.” We had drums, they scoffed. So a series of drums came and went and came. Suddenly, in Scotland, touring with Johnny Gentle, the group called the Beatles discovered they had not a very nice sound because they had no amplifiers. They got some.

Liz French, Associate Editor, LJ
After trying to read two very different books and just not connecting with either, I spied a Dennis Lehane title atop a teetering TBR pile in my living room. Darkness, Take My Hand (Harper) was just the ticket. It’s the second title in his “Patrick Kenzie/Angie Gennaro” series, and the book is rollicking, grisly, fatalistic fabulous good reading, even if it veers over the top on occasion. So many psychopaths so close to home! Killer clowns! And there are occasional references to 1990s technologies that amuse, but that’s to be expected: the book was published in 1996 after all. Here’s Patrick taunting one of the many psychopaths in the story, a Mafioso named Kevin. Kevin, of course, grew up in blue-collar Dorchester with Patrick, Angie, and their *other* psycho acquaintance, Bubba, and he’s outside Patrick’s house being menacing and watching him open his mail and leaf through the latest issue of Spin magazine (see! 90s):

“So, Kev, I’m guessing here, but I’d say that you’re not a big alternative music fan.”
Kevin lit a cigarette.
“I didn’t used to be, but then my partner pretty much convinced me that there was more out there than the Stones and Springsteen. A lot of it is corporate bullshit, and a lot is overrated, don’t get me wrong. I mean, explain Morrissey. But then you get a Kurt Cobain or a Trent Reznor, and you say, ‘These guys are the real deal,’ and it’s all enough to give you hope. Or maybe I’m wrong. By the way, Kev, how did you feel about Kurt’s death? Did you think we lost the voice of our generation or did that happen when Frankie Goes to Hollywood broke up?”
A sharp breeze creased the avenue and his voice sounded like nothing—an ugly soulless nothing—when he spoke.
“Kenzie, a guy skimmed over forty large from Jackie a few years back.”
“It speaks,” I said.

Barbara Genco, Collection Management Editor, LJ
About a week ago I entered a Remembrance/Veterans Day mode when I reimmersed myself in literature about World War I after reading LJ’s “The Great War at 100collection development feature. I love this period of history and read and reread material about it often.
Around the same time I snagged a handsome reprint of a 1975 title, And No Birds Sang, a classic, often devastating, World War II memoir by one of my favorite writers of the natural world, Farley Mowat. The Canadian publisher Douglas & McIntyre has recently published elegantly packaged paperback editions of 13 of Mowat’s most beloved books.
Growing up on the U.S. side of the Canadian border I loved Mowat’s books when I was in my teens and 20s. I particularly savored his vivid, evocative writings on nature and the environment. But I’d never read this book. I am happy for the serendipity. This memoir showcases Mowat’s astonishing restraint, brutal honesty, and dark humor. These aspects as well as his overarching sensitivity to nature, even during battle, combine for a gripping and (at times) terribly, darkly, ironic coming-of-age war memoir.
Here’s an excerpt chronicling a visitation to the troops from “on high.” Seems it was supposed to “buck them up” on the eve of their 1943 summer assault on Sicily:

‘It was not God who came; it was his self-anointed deputy. General Bernard Montgomery, fabled commander of the Eighth Army, descended upon us in a long, open Bentley limousine. We came to attention, presented arms, and then were told to “gather round” while the ferret-faced little man in his black beret stood up on the back seat of his car waving an Egyptian flyswatter, and gave us the Word…
”(T)here’s a big task ahead my lads. The Eyeties are packing it in but Jerry is determined to hold onto Sicily. Our job is to toss him out! We’ll do it…yes, we’ll do it! See him off, by Heavens! So keep up the good work lads. I’ll have my eye on you, never fear. Eighth Army always looks after its own!”
Then the unthinkable happened. From the rear rank a deep voice shouted:
“Where the hell’s our beer ration then?”
The flyswatter twirled furiously and Montgomery grinned wolfishly.
“No beer. No room on the ships yet for anything but guns and ammo. First things first you see? And while I’m on the subject, I strongly advise you to leave the Eytie wine alone. Deadly stuff! Can make you blind, you know.”

Guy Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJ
I’m reading Malarat (shamansland.com), the third novel in Jessica Rydill’s “Children of the Shaman” series, which she self-published as an ebook. Children of the Shaman, the first in the series, remains one of my all-time favorite fantasy reads. It’s been years since I read the first two, but Rydill smoothly moves the story forward right from the start, letting her distinctive characters and setting work their magic. The setting, an alternate Europe, is an intriguing mix of medieval fantasy and steampunk with Judeo-Christian underpinnings that makes it read a bit like historical fiction. There’s also a lot of romantic elements (it’s actually subtitled “a novel of love beyond death”), but I don’t think it qualifies as romance. Somehow, it all came together in her first two novels, and it’s so far, so good with this one.

Margaret Heilbrun, Senior Editor, LJ
I am working my way through Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Little, Brown), this year’s surprise Man Booker Prize winner. Okay. There are few things as satisfying as a good, long, absorbing novel—and few things as frustrating as a long novel that turns out to be irritating. See Barbara Hoffert’s review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which I agree with completely (http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2013/10/books/fiction/xpress-reviews-fiction-first-look-at-new-books-october-11-2013/. Scroll down to see it). But most book reviewers showered praise upon The Goldfinch. I thought The Luminaries would be satisfying in every way that The Goldfinch was not: attention to detail, consistency of character, consideration of the realities on the ground, clear demonstrations of motives. I’m still appreciating the detail, the otherness of Catton’s story, the sympathies I feel toward several of the characters and my fury at others’ apparent perfidy. I’m approaching page 600 and finally some secrets are being revealed—but revealed by old-fashioned mechanisms such as the discovery of a packet of old letters no less! In short, this jury of one is still out. I gather that after a certain point in the narrative (when?!) the story will unspool—or do I mean that it will rewind? Yes, it’s all starting to seem rather mechanically constructed, but I’m forging ahead. Further reports as my reading warrants!

Stephanie Klose, Media Editor, LJ
After reading Sarah Rees Brennan’s fantastic and thought-provoking piece about sexism and self-promotion (http://the-toast.net/2013/11/12/a-female-author-talks-about-sexism-and-self-promotion/) this week, I finally cracked open Untold (Random), the second volume in her modern Gothic “Lynburn Legacy” series. However, it’s been relegated to my commute, since I read the cracking-good opening scene in which scarecrows come to life and terrorize the town of Sorry-in-the-Vale right before I went to bed: not my best decision. I’ve been alternating the Brennan with Laura Lippman’s latest, After I’m Gone (Morrow). I’m not that far into it, but, as always with her books, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Meredith Schwartz, Senior Editor, News & Features, LJ
I’m reading Happily Ever After (Nightshade), an anthology of retold fairy tales edited by John Klima. It follows on my reading of Once Upon a Time (Prime), edited by Paula Guran, which was described on the cover as containing “New Fairy Tales” but was, disappointingly, retellings instead. (I like retellings, but I was expecting to see authors trying the more ambitious task of creating new archetypes from whole cloth.)


Liz French About Liz French

Library Journal Senior Editor Liz French edits nonfiction and women's fiction reviews at LJ and also compiles the "What We're Reading" and "Classic Returns" columns for LJ online. She's inordinately interested in what you're reading as well. Email: efrench@mediasourceinc.com, Twitter: @lizefrench