Against the Odds | What We’re Reading

This week (and last), the LJ/School Library Journal and Junior Library Guild* staffers battled snow, sleet, rain, delayed planes, stalled subways, and our own inner bitches to do what we love best: READ!

*welcome to our newest contributor, JLG’s Georgia Siegchrist, who learned a thing or two about a fashion designer this week!

LoomingTowerMahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, SLJ Reviews
This week I’m immersed in Lawrence Wright’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Knopf), which turns back the clock, looking at the long-term causes of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and examining significant figures such as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. Though crammed with information, this account is genuinely gripping—a true page-turner. And it’s clearly resonating with the public: this morning when I got off the shuttle at Times Square, a fellow passenger saw me carrying it and exclaimed, “That’s a great book!” Right on.




NovaRenSumaWallsShelley Diaz, Senior Editor, SLJ Reviews
I’m currently reading Nova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us, out in March from Algonquin. It’s being touted as “Orange Is the New Black Swan.” It certainly is all that—but more than a gimmicky, high-concept book, this YA novel gets at the core of the insecurities and societal constraints that try to keep young women “in line” and “locked up.” I’m not done reading yet, but so far my favorite character is Amber, the cellmate of “the killer ballerina,” who serves as an almost seer in this magic realism tale. Suma blends the best of ghost stories and feminist narratives every single time. And the cover is “pick me up” gorgeous!



RivalQueensKate DiGirolomo, Editorial Assistant, LJ
I’ve been dabbling in some 16th-century French history these last few weeks with Nancy Goldstone’s The Rival Queens (Little, Brown). The queens in question are the formidable Catherine de’ Medici and her mistreated daughter, Marguerite, who is forced to marry her cousin (gasp), the Protestant (double gasp) King of Navarre. Despite all of the irritating men named Henry and the constant bloodbaths between religions, Goldstone manages to approach the madness with a much-needed dose of wry humor (“This was one of the big advantages of being the dominant monarch in Europe—the ability to send an underling to deal with your annoying mother-in-law.”). I have grown quite attached to Marguerite in particular and turned each page with the hope that something, anything good would finally happen to her.

Acutely aware of the vulnerability of the position forced upon her by marriage, Marguerite nonetheless steadfastly refused to accept victimhood and instead strove throughout her life to carve out a measure of independence and influence for herself. To an astounding degree, considering the variety and potency of the forces ranged against her, she succeeded.

RubinBetterLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Like my colleague Etta (see her entry below), I’ve been reading a few self-help books of late. Must be that New Year’s thing (and being a great procrastinator, I’ve decided to adopt the Lunar New Year in 2015—that’s not until February 19!). Reading the books is easy—it’s the follow-through that’s hard! My latest manual is Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (Crown, Mar. 2015), which was recommended to me by LJ’s audio editor, Stephanie Klose. It’s all about habits: developing and maintaining good ones; stifling or repurposing bad ones, that sort of thing. It’s delightful reading—Rubin interjects family stories and emails from and to her sister, a TV writer, and tidbits about all in her orbit. She sounds fun but intense and I wonder how I’d feel if she were my sister, commenting on my bad or unhealthy habits!

SAftThoseGirlsAmanda Mastrull, Assistant Editor, LJ Reviews
This week I’m reading Lauren Saft’s upcoming YA novel Those Girls (Poppy: Little, Brown; Jun. 2015). The book is told from the alternating points-of-view of three teenage girls living in a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia—Alex, who’s secretly in love with her childhood friend and decides to join a band; Mollie, who’s hiding an eating disorder and has a terrible but popular boyfriend; and Veronica, who’s known as the school “slut” (a word that’s used often) and basically lives alone while her parents are each off doing their own thing. The story follows the friends through their junior year of high school (I’ve reached St. Patrick’s Day) as they grow apart and deal with issues of identity and romance. In a backdrop of drunken parties and some mean-girl antics, of course. So far I’m enjoying this fun, quick read.

cristinaHenriquiezUnknownStephanie Sendaula, Associate Editor, LJ Reviews
It’s been a while since I stayed up all night to finish a novel—just one more chapter, I kept telling myself—but I was moved by Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf). I loved the honest, even uncomfortable at times, portrayals of the anxieties of living with a disability on top of the anxieties of adjusting to a new culture. This immigrant story follows two outsiders, Maribel and Mayor, as they explore their new lives in a migrant town in Delaware and navigate everything from studying to learning how to drive. I’ve read many reviews complaining about the multiple first-person viewpoints from tangential characters such as parents and landlords, but I appreciated these “distractions” since it gave more depth to secondary characters and allowed me to see Maribel and Mayor from a different angle. I also enjoyed the pan-Latino aspect, as the narrative includes immigrant stories from several Latin American countries, not just Mexico. The ending is tragic, but do stories such as these ever have a happy ending? Next goal: to read Henríquez’s previous books.

Georgia Siegchrist, Assistant Editor, Junior Library Guild
I just finished Susan Goldman Rubin’s Hot Pink (Abrams, Sept. 2015), a middle-grade biography of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973), an iconic fashion designer (and contemporary of Coco Chanel). I was totally unfamiliar with Schiaparelli’s work yet found the book fascinating. It turns out I had seen some of her designs before, but didn’t know they were hers (for example, a hat in the shape of an upside-down high heel shoe). I wish there were more photographs because the descriptions of the designs sound amazing, but I think it was tough to get photo rights. This book definitely made me want to learn more about Schiaparelli and her work.

EscapeAnx.SelBksEtta Verma, Editor, LJ Reviews
This week I finished Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End (Metropolitan: Holt) by Atul Gawande. It is excellent, and if you plan on being old, you should read it. I also read Suzanne Jessee’s Escape Anxiety: 8 Steps to Freedom Through Meditative Therapies (Select Books). Jessee, a clinical therapist who’s also a recovering alcoholic and depression and anxiety sufferer, offers progressively longer and more involved (but all accessible) meditations throughout her book, as well as exercises and tips for recognizing what makes you anxious and how to stop worrying so much—all of which I found very helpful. On a very different note, I’ve been dipping into a bit of true crime with Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases (Roadrunner Pr.) by Kent Frates. The book describes episodes such as the 1933 Machine Gun Kelly Gang trial, Karen Silkwood’s nuclear industry whistle-blowing, and, of course, the Oklahoma City bombing. Reading about the lead-up to the 1995 crime, the massacre itself, and the subsequent investigation and trial was a revelation—perhaps like many, I had only a vague notion of the reasons Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols had for their crime and how it all happened. Oklahoma libraries will want this title of course, but it should also appeal to fans of true crime and of forensic science. Back to self-help: on my plane ride back to New York from Chicago after attending the American Library Association’s (ALA) Midwinter conference—assuming I’m not snowed in!—I’ll be reading a book that was recommended to me at the show, Jacqueline Hornor Plumez’s forthcoming The Bitch in Your Head: How to Finally Squash Your Inner Critic (Rowman & Littlefield, May 2015). My hopes are up.


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


  1. Karl Helicher says:

    I always enjoy these insights into what the LJ crew is reading. Seems to be more contributors to this column than any other I remember. Interesting, how we might find more time to read when almost a foot of snow falls.

    “Be safe. Be warm. Be the bulldog!”

  2. Etta Verma says:

    Update: naturally, I WAS snowed in.