Coloring, Geeking, Watching, Witching, & More | What We’re Reading

Last week I asked my cohorts at LJ/School Library Journal and Junior Library Guild about “alternative” reads, then sat back and waited for the deluge. There was no deluge. I got freaked out. I needed some input besides my Stalin-era crime novel, after all. So then I re-asked the gang, telling them to please save me from the “nightmare” of no WWR entries. That plea opened the floodgates! We have some frequent and infrequent contributors to this week’s column, and they’re more than ready to discuss dreams, nightmares, outliers, relaxing, reading, out-of-stock books, oh, and spoilers! Anybody out there who hasn’t read Patricia Park’s Re Jane and wants to stay blissfully unaware of the ending, stop reading after Ashleigh’s witchcraft book review—and don’t say we didn’t warn you. If you have read it, by all means, check out Wendy’s take on the Korean-American update of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.

Geek LoveMahnaz Dar, Associate Editor, SLJ Reviews
When I was a younger Mahnazling, I enjoyed many a tale of outsiders (sadly, I could relate all too well). I enjoyed S.E. Hinton’s aptly titled The Outsiders and Francesca Lia Block’s Dangerous Angels, which romanticized weirdos and freaks, but I’d have to say my all-time favorite outlier read was—and is—Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love (Knopf). This story of a husband and wife who use a combination of tricks to give birth—on purpose—to a family of freaks (that’s showbiz for you!) is disturbing yet full of heart. It’s one that’s stayed with me years later, and I can’t recommend it enough. (You’ll also learn the true meaning of the word geek: someone who bites the heads off of live chickens in front of audiences. Eat your heart out, Ozzy!)

innocenceLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
I grabbed an ARC off the giveaway/going-away shelves last week: Czech memoirist/translator/ émigré/librarian Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, Or, Murder on Steep Street (Soho Crime, tr. from Czech by Alex Zucker). The novel is set in 1950s Czechoslovakia, where nobody is safe from spying, snooping neighbors or the probing and surveillance by secret police and paranoia is more than justified. The action centers on a group of female ushers at a Prague cinema, all of whom have secrets. There’s a murder, then another, which subjects the women to police scrutiny. I enjoyed the author’s characterizations and her ability to convey the fear and distrust Czechoslovakians felt during the totalitarian, repressive Stalinist era. Kovály (1919–2010) knew whereof she wrote: her first husband was tried and executed by the Soviets during this time. Reading his fictionalized version of events in her life made me want to read her Holocaust memoir, Under a Cruel Star—yes, she survived several labor camps and made an escape and…reunited with her husband, who had also been incarcerated in a concentration camp. What a woman!

Feet of the ChameleonGuy Gonzalez, Director, Content Strategy & Audience Development, LJS
As outliers go, soccer wasn’t even on my radar until last year’s World Cup—and it remains an outlier here in the United States, despite the Women’s National Team winning its third championship last month!—but since then, it’s absolutely dominated my reading as my thirst for learning more has remained unquenchable. My current read is Ian Hawkey’s Feet of the Chameleon: The Story of African Football (Portico), which starts with Nelson Mandela, in 2004, helping make the case to FIFA for South Africa’s hosting the 2010 World Cup with a personal recollection that’s arguably a perfect metaphor for football’s popularity and growth in former European colonies around the world: “On Robben Island, football was the only joyful release for the prisoners.” Not surprisingly, the history of soccer in Africa follows a familiar pattern of exploitation and export, segregation and scandal, but 50 pages in, it’s also clear that, much like in Brazil and other South American countries, many African countries have taken the simple game and put their own beautiful spin on it.

The Lake HouseBarbara Hoffert, Prepub Alert Editor, LJ
Barbara recently read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman and she tells us here why we should, too. Barbara’s working on three author interviews now; here’s what she had to say about the books:

  1. Eli Gottlieb’s Best Boy (Liveright), a No.1 LibraryReads pick, is an excellent novel capturing what life is like for developmentally disabled adults, a nearly invisible community, and for personal reasons it’s especially moving to me.
  1. Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria) is another example of Morton’s terrific use of shifting time frames to examine family, history, and responsibility and really lovely in the way it highlights characters who act on their convictions even when it hurts them
  1. Gregory Maguire’s After Alice (Morrow) provides an engaging reminder not only that’s it’s the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but that childhood is not a fairy tale!

panicAmanda Mastrull, Assistant Editor, LJ Reviews
This week I’m reading Lauren Oliver’s Panic (Harper). It’s set in a poor, small New York town and centers on a high-stakes game that high school seniors play during the summer after they graduate. The payoff is large—usually around $50,000—and everyone has a reason to play, whether it’s paying for college or just for a means to get out of the town. Of the two main characters, Heather, who lives with her younger sister and their alcoholic mother in a trailer park, decides to play after a breakup with her boyfriend, but soon realizes how much the prize money could do for her and her sister. Dodge, meanwhile, is playing for revenge, because he knows too well that not just the winner of Panic can have their life forever altered by the game. I really like the mystery element (no one knows who judges Panic, though the winnings come from a pool of money that students pay into all year), and it’s one of those books that I don’t want to put down, especially as each challenge in the game becomes more intense (think Russian roulette).

WWR.07.20.15.RebeccafoximageRebecca Miller, Editor-in-Chief, Editorial Director, LJS
Like so many are proving to be, I was very curious about the adult coloring book fad, so a few months ago I ordered a copy of Johanna Basford’s Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest & Coloring Book (Laurence King) from Burton’s, the wonderful bookshop in Greenport, NY. Then, like so many others, I waited. Back-ordered, out of stock—for weeks. When at last it arrived, I sat down with my daughter’s colored pencils and before long was very relaxed and having fun coloring. Soon after, I was joined by the kids in my life who became ready collaborators on one spread after another—which the large format enables. A sample of the output of that is here. That was fun, but it was also deeply soothing to return to the pages later, after they went to bed, and color some more. The book is now a family project, and while it’s not really reading and so questionable in “What We’re Reading,” I wanted to include it because it certainly is absorbing and playful.

gosetawatchman71015Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
Last week I read the book-of-the-minute, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman (Harper). And well, you know. As expected, it’s a rough draft. Lee’s a good writer, but this isn’t all that good a book. It’s too talky, especially just where she’s going for catharsis; too many church jokes that you probably won’t appreciate unless you’re a Baptist; too many clever 1950s intellectual references that are the equivalent of quoting, I don’t know, Taylor Swift lyrics that nobody’s going to appreciate in 20 years. It was neat, though, to have just finished To Kill a Mockingbird and to see what she did working with a good editor—and I can see why her publisher asked her to rewrite Watchman. It’s a mess, but an interesting mess. And, inadvertently, it made me feel really good about being an editor.
I will say that toward the end I got very self-conscious reading it on the subway. There’s a lot of seriously inflammatory talk in there, and I started getting worried that someone was going to read over my shoulder and punch me or something. But that didn’t happen.

Meredith Schwartz, Executive Editor, LJ
I’m not reading it yet, because I’m still waiting for it to arrive in the mail, but next on my list is Herbert N. Foerstel’s Surveillance in the Stacks: The FBI’s Library Awareness Program (Praeger). It’s an out-of-print book recommended in the forthcoming Collection Development column for August—I stopped in the middle of editing the article to order a former library copy from AbeBooks. The columnist says librarians should look for a way to bring it back into print—sounds like a job for to me.

bovaryGeorgia Siegchrist, Assistant Editor, JLG
I’m currently reading Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, a new translation by Lydia Davis (Penguin Classics). This is the first time I’ve read the novel, and it actually does fit into the “alternative to normal life” theme—what with Emma Bovary’s desire for a less provincial, predictable existence. I’m not very far into the book but am definitely enjoying it, including Davis’s thorough endnotes. Already, though, I can tell it’s going to be a depressing read, and I’m not sure if I sympathize with Emma or loathe her. Just now it seems she’s become pretty high and mighty considering she’s gone to a single solitary high society party. But how ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?

In a Dark, Dark WoodHenrietta Verma, Editor, LJ Reviews
Liz’s call for nightmare-related reads gave me the shivers. My recurring (once a week for years) nightmare is that I’ve been accused of murder and it’s all a big mistake but nobody believes me. Maybe I should stop reading so many murder mysteries? The recurring horror didn’t stop me this weekend, though, when I read Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout). I was warned that I’d know “whodunit” too soon into the book. I didn’t, but I still didn’t enjoy the novel enough to recommend it; the story was compelling and at times the fear was palpable, but ultimately the whiny characters didn’t do it for me.

I’m about to try a nonfiction work I’ve been dying to get my hands on: Damon Tweedy’s Black Man in a White Coat (Picador). Stay tuned. And on my shopping list is two copies of Brian Selznick’s The Marvels (Scholastic, Sept.) so that my daughter and I can revive our book club.

The Penguin Book of WitchesAshleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, SLJ
In an absurdly early homage to Halloween, I started reading The Penguin Book of Witches (ed. by Katherine Howe) this weekend. The book promises to explore the underlying facets of witchcraft as a cultural phenomenon throughout history. The story didn’t start (and apparently, didn’t stop) with the Salem witch trials; Howe aims to discuss how a landmark event that has since been deemed an aberration of sorts was actually the boiling point of longstanding fears and beliefs surrounding sexuality, religion, poverty, and much more. So far, it’s been a minor nightmare deciphering the documents from witch trials in 1582, though nothing compared to the misfortunes that befell the children apparently cursed by self-confessed witch Ursula Kemp.


Wendy Xu, Editorial Assistant, JLG
[Spoiler Alert!] I just finished Patricia Park’s Re Jane (Pamela Dorman: Viking ) for my book club. We had a lively discussion about how much we all hated Ed Farley, whether the characterization of Beth Mazer as an over-the-top, academic theory–buried feminist worked or not, and the complications of Jane’s relationship with her uncle, Sang.
To backpedal: Re Jane is Park’s Korean American retelling of the Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, set in the early 2000s. Jane Re, a mixed-race Korean American girl, longs to get out of the stifling familiarity of Queens, her community, and her Uncle Sang’s grocery store. Jane lands a job as a nanny to Chinese American adoptee Devon and moves in with the family. Devon’s mother, Beth Mazer, is a self-described “vegan with ovo-lacto tendencies” and takes it upon herself to “save” Jane by pushing long academic articles about feminism written by men onto her. Ed Farley, a high school teacher struggling to complete his dissertation and dissatisfied with his marriage, falls in love with Jane. [Spoiler Alert!] On the verge of having an affair with Ed, Jane flies to Korea to attend her grandfather’s funeral right before 9/11. In Korea, Jane does a lot of self-reflection, struggles to assimilate into Seoul’s culture, and ultimately decides to return home. [Spoiler Alert!] This incarnation of Jane, thankfully, decides that she’s better off without her Mr. Rochester, and opens a business with her best friend.

Having read Jane Eyre, I like this version much better. Not just for the contemporary setting and relevant tie-ins to my life with the themes about immigrant families and their relationships, but Jane’s decision that she doesn’t need to be saved by a man in order to make a good life for herself (and thank God she left him, Ed Farley was gross!) is so important when young women are constantly being bombarded by images of illicit romantic entanglements.


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