Monarchs, Memoirs, Mysteries, & Making Choices | What We’re Reading

The LJ staff’s post–Valentine’s Day (and Presidents Day) reading runs the gamut from prison memoirs to the politics of de-extinction cloning this week, with some stops along the way to bask in old books, contemplate vengeance, and walk on the wild side.

The PlantagenetsKate DiGirolomo, Editorial Assistant, LJ
I’ve still been residing in England this week. The abysmal King John has just ascended the throne to make quite a mess of things in The Plantagenets by Dan Jones (Penguin), and it’s taking a lot for me not to picture him as a thumb-sucking lion. Thanks, Disney.

In equally exciting literary news, I’ve just acquired my first vintage book! It was bought completely on a whim during an Etsy-spiral, but I’m thrilled to now have a 1942 copy of Anne of the Island—the third in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables” series and the one in which Anne and Gilbert finally, FINALLY get together. The publishing date itself isn’t really significant, but there’s something special about the worn pages, that classic book smell, and thinking about who might have owned it before me. At any rate, the purchase inspired me to grab the first book of the series and do a reread. If there is any one person who has so wholly shaped me as a person it’s the delightfully stubborn and imaginative Anne Shirley. Given the freezing weather as of late, it’s been nice to curl up and spend some time with a dear and kindred spirit.

RinaldiWildOatsLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Lately, I’ve been reading about women who break rules. One such rule breaker is Robin Rinaldi, whose March 2015 memoir I reviewed for an upcoming issue of LJ (I also conducted an email Q&A with the author which will be featured in the same issue). The Wild Oats Project: One Woman’s Midlife Quest for Passion at Any Cost (Sarah Crichton: Farrar), details her exploration of her sexual side. Rinaldi led a double life during her yearlong “project,” making dates and living the swinging single life on weekdays (and nights) and then going home to her husband on the weekend. If that sounds titillating to you, you’re made of stronger (or perhaps sexier) stuff than moi. To me it sounds exhausting and crazy making, but I understand her impulses. Here’s a glimpse at the author’s balancing act, when her best friend brings her young daughter to town to visit:

Susan and I had never lived in the same city during our twenty-year friendship but each always kept keys to the other’s house. She arrived with Amelia on a Friday. On previous visits I’d leave work early and meet them at home but this time I couldn’t. I had an afternoon date with Roman and Margit for a threesome. Margit was leaving the country on Monday, Roman had secured permission from Annie, and I was moving back home in two weeks. The timing was terrible, but no more so than the timing of the entire project. I should have sown my oats during my short stint as a single woman in my twenties. My threesome should have happened spontaneously, in the wee hours after the rave I never went to, and I should have met my one-night stands on European trains I never rode, instead of on and at OneTaste.

The other rule breaker I’m reading about is world-famous designer Coco Chanel, the queen of reinvention and determination. I just started Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (Random) by Rhonda K. Garelick. It’s a very good book about a very slippery (and often distasteful) character. I’m fascinated and will write more about it next week.

EcholscoverAmanda Mastrull, Assistant Editor, LJ Reviews
Right now I’m reading Damien Echols’s memoir Life After Death (Blue Rider). He is, of course, one of the West Memphis Three, three teens wrongly convicted in Arkansas of the 1993 murder of three children. Echols spent 18 years on death row, and much of this book was written during that time. I hesitate to use the word “compelling” to describe it, if only because it seems so many books are described that way now, but I’ll make an exception here—this is an incredibly compelling, readable account of both his upbringing in poverty and the grim realities of life behind bars. I was discussing the below excerpt with my colleagues the other day (I find myself talking about this book a lot), and one of them suggested I include it here. Before I do though, lest anyone read it and think the book is an attack on religion, it’s not—Echols opens with a list of his patron saints and details his practice of Buddhism in prison—and is instead much more about his own experiences.

Preachers visit Death Row all the time, including Baptist ministers who try to convince us that death is preferable to life. Some go so far as to tell us that we should even drop our appeals and voluntarily allow the state to kill us. When someone is executed, these vultures make comments like “He’s in a better place now.” Somehow I doubt that even they themselves believe this. I think they’d be pretty quick to seek medical attention if they had a problem. They say the Bible tells them that death is more wonderful than life. I’ve read it, and I see a different picture. If death is so great, then why did Jesus raise the dead? Why did he call Lazarus back to life? That in itself causes me to believe there must be something wholly unpleasant about that particular condition. They know it, too. They just get high on watching people die. It’s the only thing left for them to get off on.

blackhouseMeredith Schwartz, Executive Editor, News & Features, LJ
I just finished Peter May’s well-written mystery The Blackhouse (Quercus). It is set on Scotland’s Isle of Lewis and presents a fascinating capsule of a culture I knew little about. However, I am a bit tired of police procedurals that tie into the detectives’ personal lives, and this one was a little too dark for me—likely to appeal to fans of Ruth Rendell’s more morbid stand-alone work rather than my faves, such as the “Inspector Wexford” series. I also just read for the first time Rendell’s From Doon with Death, the first “Wexford” book. Alas, it hasn’t worn well—through no fault of the author’s; cultural change since it was published in 1964 made the twist ending no longer a surprise. I’m currently finishing up David Nicholls’s Us (HarperCollins), which I’d started a while ago and then lost steam. As to what to read next, I’m torn—Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory (Tor) or William Sitwell’s A History of Food in 100 Recipes (Little, Brown)?

biggerblackriverhulseStephanie Sendaula, Associate Editor, LJ Reviews
I just finished Black River (Houghton Harcourt) by S.M. Hulse, which earned a starred review from LJ (and also starred reviews from some of our competitors). This is a story of remorse and redemption in which Wes Carver, whose wife recently succumbed to cancer, finds himself in a moral bind. I love the words of our reviewer Keddy Ann Outlaw: “Can he mend the broken relationship with his stepson? Can he withstand the parole hearing for the man who maimed him for life? Will he rekindle his lost Christian faith and find any kind of hope for a good life without his beloved Claire?” To me, the beauty is in Hulse’s writing and the humanness of her characters as they struggle to make the “right” choices. It’s already tempting to make this a best book of the year!


ShapiroCloneMammothEtta Verma, Editor, LJ Reviews
The most interesting science title I’ve come across in a while is occupying my thoughts all the time. Beth Shapiro’s How To Clone a Mammoth (Princeton Univ., May) first explores whether to perform such a scientific miracle. It examines “de-extinction” in detail, addressing questions such as: Which animal should be chosen for de-extinction? What are the benefits, and who would benefit? Is there still a habitat for the extinct animal in question? What effect will the returned species have on the environment? Is there a living animal similar enough whose genome can be looked to for clues for the reconstruction of the extinct genome and which can be used to gestate the engineered embryo? The closest living relative to the Steller’s sea cows, for example, is the dugong, but a newborn Steller’s sea cow is bigger than an adult dugong. The questions abound, but at least one scientist is sure it’s a matter of time and is building a mammoth habitat in the Arctic.

At home, our four-year-old is hooked on the books his teacher has been introducing at Pre–K. Lately he’s been asking over and over for The Three Bears and The Three Little Pigs. (We have the Paul Galdone versions.) He’s really loving Don Freeman’s Corduroy and Caps for Sale, too, both of which he also had read to him at school (yay for classics!). Since he’s enjoying titles that are a bit longer than he could sit still for until lately and was intrigued by Corduroy’s department-store setting, next I’m going to dust off Lyle, Lyle Crocodile. Our ten-year-old girl just joined the same school’s anime club. She’s now reading Attack on Titan: No Regrets 1 (Kodansha) by Hajime Isayama (original creator), with text by Gun Snark and illustrations by Hikaru Suruga. And together we’re starting Natalie Babbitt’s Tuck Everlasting (Farrar), since not only the little guy should be read to!


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