To Protect and Serve | What We’re Reading

For Library Journal/School Library Journal staffers, it’s a week of pulling that lonesome book off the shelf and finally *reading* it, taking a chance on a novel for the younger set, being vicariously Victorian, and pondering Vladimir Putin’s power.

haveLiz French, Associate Editor, Reviews, LJ
I just finished No One Else Can Have You (HarperTeen) by Kathleen Hale, a delightful and macabre YA book that two of my colleagues, Stephanie Klose and Amanda Mastrull, read, enjoyed, and wrote about in previous “What We’re Reading” columns (here’s Stephanie’s rave review; here’s Amanda’s). It was a hoot, sort of a mix of Twin Peaks, Fargo, Harriet the Spy, and Veronica Mars—if Veronica was a much less savvy Midwesterner. The father-daughter relationship is warm and hilarious and the “find your dead friend’s diary and read her innermost thoughts” segments were heartbreakingly good.




victoriaBarbara Genco, Manager, Special Projects, LJ
While pondering how I can possibly go on after the Downton Abbey Season 4 finale on February 23 I gravitated toward a few titles that just may tide me over. I have already read many of the books on the Canadian Bookseller Indigo’s “Addicted to Downton Abbeylist. Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End (also a terrific BBC series featuring Benedict Cumberbatch) is a personal favorite. And I adore all of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs books. I decided to go Victorian for my post-Downton solace. I picked up Kate Hubbard’s Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (Harper). It is perfect for “drop-in” reading—lots of detail and insiders’ accounts drawn from contemporary letters and diaries. Our LJ reviewer Elizabeth Mellett called this a “well-written and remarkably interesting account of the ‘woeful dullness’ and ‘loneliness’ of life inside Victoria’s court.” (Read the entire review here.)
I confess, I went directly to the section on Balmoral Castle in general and Victoria’s (postdeath of her beloved Albert) attachment to and very particular regard for her personal “Highland” servant John Brown. Deelish.

empireAmanda Mastrull, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
This week I started reading Ben Judah’s Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell In and Out of Love with Vladimir Putin (Yale Univ.). So far it’s a fascinating portrayal of how Putin rose from a modest childhood marked by KGB aspirations (his former teacher tells of the time a young Putin walked into its headquarters, asking to join) to become a key figure in Russia’s chaotic post-communist political climate. With the recent widespread condemnation of the country’s anti-gay laws, the mess that was the Pussy Riot trial, and the disillusionment that the regime faces from its own citizens, it’s at times hard to believe that Putin’s approval rating was once over 80 percent. Still, while his cult of personality was carefully cultivated (see the Atlantic’s always classic “Vladimir Putin, Action Man” post), there’s no disputing that his leadership has changed the landscape of modern Russia. I’ve still got a ways to go, but it all seems incredibly well researched by Judah, a twentysomething journalist, who traveled throughout Russia and the former Soviet republics (including the Caucasus) to write the book. I’ve had this one on my shelf for a few months and I’m glad I finally picked it up.

houseMeredith Schwartz, Editor, News & Features, LJ
Greenglass House
by Kate Mitford (Clarion), is a middle grade title but surprisingly accessible to adults, or at least this one. I don’t read much middle grade—I’m picky even about YA—but I was lured by the back cover blurbs into picking this August 2014 release up at the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference and was not disappointed. I particularly liked that the main character has an extremely functional relationship with his parents, who are neither dead, nor absent, nor well-meaning but clueless. Yet he still has agency of his own; the things he discovers, says, and does have real-world consequences for kids and adults alike, but they never push the bounds of credibility of what a kid could or should be able to do.

It is refreshing to see a hero of color (still too rare in middle-grade titles) and to read a plotline which features an adopted kid yet avoids an overly neat ending where he finds his birth family and it turns out his blood heritage makes him special. I was also pleased to see realistic, not instant, and not always smooth development of a new friendship between kids who were thrown together, as well as a nuanced and sensitive love triangle among the adults that nonetheless did not overshadow the focus on the child protagonists. Only in its presentation of smugglers as harmless, and enforcement agents as villains and tools of big corporations, does the story ever seem oversimplified. It’s also rejuvenating to read a story set more or less in this world, or at least in a realistic analog, with minimal fantastic content (barring one touch at the end which I don’t want to spoil). Much as I love sf/fantasy, it’s nice to read about kids having adventures in a world they recognize. This title would be a great recommendation for fans of Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game.

soldierWilda Williams, Senior Editor, Reviews, LJ
For my subway commute, I have my Nook to catch up on old New Yorker issues, but I also like to carry a paperback with me. Just In Case. Yes I suffer from New Yorkers ‘ dreaded fear of having nothing to read, especially if they forget to recharge their e-reader’s battery and wind up trapped with 50 grumpy strangers on an overheated subway car stuck in the tunnel. But my choices are limited to slim volumes that can be slipped easily in and out of my purse. My choice this week is Rebecca West’s The Return of the Soldier (Penguin Classics). This novel had been sitting unread on my shelves for years, but its portability attracted my attention. And I was so glad I picked it up. At a mere 90 pages, West’s profound and moving first novel, published in 1918, packs in more wisdom and insights into the human heart than any 1,000-page tome.

Set in an isolated English country house, the story revolves around the relationships among three women and a soldier suffering from shell shock. Chris has returned from the battlefields of France, his body physically intact, but the memory of his recent past wiped clean. Kitty, his beautiful, socially prominent wife, is a stranger to him; he is shocked by his spinster cousin Jenny’s aging appearance, and he longs for his first love, Margaret, an innkeeper’s daughter who is now a frumpy suburban housewife. Through her beautifully drawn characters and elegantly succinct prose West examines England’s shifting class structures and the tension between remaining in the romantic past or returning to the awful reality of the present. By the time I finished the book, I understood the double-edged meaning of her haunting title.


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:, Twitter: @lizefrench