2017 Gumbo | What We’re Reading

The first “What We’re Reading” column of the new year from my colleagues at LJ/School Library Journal, Junior Library Guild, and beyond is such a rich mix of books, all I have to do is add some filé powder and call it a gumbo (in honor of Guy Gonzalez’s New Orleans–set book). Adding their special ingredients to the stew are a newly minted mom, a trio of WWR alums who’ve moved on, our newest crew member, and, of course, the veteran “reliables” who sweep into the kitchen and rustle up some nourishing dishes damn near every time. I think I’ve taken the cooking tropes as far as I can now, except to say bon appetit!

frankmank-memoirEllen Abrams, Guest Editor, LJ Reviews
At one time, the name Mankiewicz meant a lot in Hollywood. Then it meant a lot in Washington, DC. And today, it means something to NBC News and TCM viewers. The great Frank Mankiewicz tells his fascinating personal political story in So As I Was Saying…: My Somewhat Eventful Life (Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s), weaving in tidbits from the outsized life of his father, Herman (who we learn, was actually the screenwriter of Citizen Kane, no matter what Orson Welles claimed). Written with journalist Joel L. Swerdlow, the book was published after Mankiewicz died at the tender age of 90, but his voice rings out true and strong. He helped create and organize the Peace Corps under President John F. Kennedy, was a speechwriter for Sen. Robert Kennedy, and presidential campaign director for Sen. George McGovern, was instrumental in establishing National Public Radio, and much, much more. “Mank” was a man very much of his time. The figure who radiates from these pages is witty, wily, and wonderfully acerbic. He is an idealist with an edge, and reminds readers of the kind of citizen America used to produce—engaged and active and unselfishly intrigued by the lives around him, with an itch to participate and make a difference.

lippman-everysecretMahnaz Dar, Assistant Managing Editor, LJS
I recently finished up Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing. At the heart of this dark and often deeply depressing read is a case in which two 11-year-old girls, Alice and Ronnie, both white, were convicted of manslaughter for the death of an infant, who was black. Years later, the girls are both 18 and have been released from juvenile facilities to the general public, and when another young black girl goes missing, the mother of the baby who was killed is convinced that Alice and Ronnie are responsible. Lippman confounds expectations again and again, crafting a title that is occasionally hard to read but always immensely satisfying. I also found myself appreciating the character of Nancy, one of the detectives involved with the new case. Though Lippman is most known for her protagonist Tess Monaghan, Nancy’s one I really enjoyed spending time with.

henkes-waitingShelley Diaz, Manager, SLJ Reviews
I’m a newly minted mom and there’s nothing more satisfying than reading to my three-month-old. Celine’s favorites so far include Kevin Henkes’s Caldecott Honor and Geisel Honor Waiting (HarperCollins). Each time I read it to her I try using different voices for the small characters (to varying effect). She just loves staring at the soft, pastel colors. Chris Haughton’s Goodnight Everyone (Candlewick) is another winner. Every sigh and yawn of the text becomes infectious. I dare you to read this aloud without having a yawn fest. Celine is captivated by the startling contrasts of the stunning yellows and oranges of sunset versus the deep purples and blues of nighttime.

saynothing-parksLiz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Crime novelist Brad Parks just gets better and better. He wrote a series starring a New Jersey investigative reporter, Carter Ross, who worked at a paper not unlike the one for which Parks once toiled. The “Carter Ross” mysteries contained serious issues, such as political corruption, housing crises, the death of newspapers, etc. The books also had plenty of humor, some sexual tension (Carter had a thing for his city editor), and a convincing supporting cast.

Parks’s latest, a stand-alone titled Say Nothing (Dutton), looks to be another winner. It’s about Virginia-based judge Scott Sampson and his wife, Alison, whose six-year-old twins are kidnapped, and it’s a breathless, twisty, action-packed humdinger of a breakout. Scott and Alison are told to “say nothing” if they want their children safely returned; the mysterious abductor also instructs Scott on how to rule on an upcoming drug case. While I generally run fast and far away from any thriller purporting to be “every parent’s worst nightmare,” I am glad I followed LJ reviewer Jeff Ayers’s recommendation to pick up this one. It has the patented Parks observational humor, too. Here’s an aside about Virginia gentlefolk:

As best as I understood, Byers came from one of those old Virginia families where most everyone who was not an evident success—a distinguished public servant, a wealthy businessperson, a boarding school headmaster—at least had the good breeding to revert to quiet shame and alcoholism.

Later in the book, Parks also perfectly captures the wonder (and fear) of new parenthood:

I thought of how, when we first brought the twins home from the hospital, Alison and I used to creep into the nursery and watch them breathe. Mostly it was that new-parent paranoia: We wanted to make sure they were still doing it. But I think part of it was also to enjoy the unfathomable miracle we had conspired to create.

confed-duncesGuy LeCharles Gonzalez, WWR Emeritus
Now that I no longer commute into the city and have a short drive to work, books are competing with soccer, Xbox, podcasts, and Netflix for my limited free time and, frankly, they aren’t faring too well. As a primarily nonfiction reader, I’m finding myself increasingly engaged in long-form web content and magazines rather than books these days, but I did recently jump into John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (Grove), which had been recommended to me several times over the years. I somehow never realized it was set in my beloved New Orleans, but a friend of mine who lives there finally mailed me her own copy and insisted I move it to the top of my to-read list and I’m glad she did. Although I’m making slow progress, it’s an enjoyable read so far, especially since it’s been two years since my last visit, and Mardi Gras is right around the corner.

jiles-newsworldLisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I had a streak of really great reading at the very end of last year, so I guess I can give at least that to 2016. My second-to-last book of the year was Paulette Jiles’s News of the World (Morrow), which was totally engaging and, let’s face it, absolutely charming. It’s essentially a road-trip novel set in post–Civil War Texas with an old itinerant public newspaper reader and a ten-year-old former Indian captive being returned to her relatives—there are good guys and bad guys, stalwart horses, exciting gunfights, and lovely descriptions of the natural world. While the combination of Wild West odyssey, brusque old guy, and brave and resourceful girl invite a lot of comparisons to Charles Portis’s True Grit, I don’t buy it—this is a very different story, strong on the value of uncomplicated kindness, and with a gentle but refreshingly firm moral thread running throughout. There’s very little not to like here.

burnet-bloodyprojectGeorgia Siegchrist, Assistant Editor, JLG
I recently finished Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Man Booker Prize finalist His Bloody Project (Skyhorse), a Scottish murder mystery set in the 1860s. The novel, which takes place in a bleak seaside village of tenant farmers and surrounding towns, is presented as nonfiction. The author claims that he learned about the case while doing genealogy research, and the book is composed of a series of “real” documents related to the murders. There’s the murderer’s biography/confession that he writes at the behest of his lawyer; a segment from an analyst’s book about criminal insanity; coroner’s reports; witness statements; and papers detailing the murderer’s trial. Burnet manages to make each section not only distinct and believable but totally compelling. I could barely put it down, honestly.

While it might seem like a rather dull mystery when you know whodunit from the start, the genius here is that the reader can’t really rely on any of the narrators. There are so many contradictions among the documents, and reasons for people to push their own agendas, that it’s impossible to tease out exactly what happened or how it transpired. Also, a number of casual asides hint at a much darker undercurrent of terror occurring in the village. I’ve been encouraging people to read the book so that I finally have someone with whom to discuss my theories!

Henrietta Verma, WWR Emerita
I keep having false starts with books lately, reading a few pages and realizing that the publisher’s description was a bit too hopeful. But I did enjoy this New England Review article that brings together two of my interests, Haruki Murakami and translation. In “The Murakami Effect: On the Homogenizing Dangers of Easily Translated Literature,” Stephen Snyder describes how Murakami writes with translation in mind, and has “[created] a version of the New Yorker house style in Japanese, which allowed [Murakami], when his work was translated back into English, to embody a naturalized Japanese New Yorker writer more New Yorker in many ways than any other and, not incidentally, made him among the writers who have appeared most often in that magazine in the past 25 years.”

older-halfresurrectAshleigh Williams, WWR Emerita
I’ve started reading Daniel José Older’s Half-Resurrection Blues (Penguin), the first in his “Bone Street Rumba” series; quite literally, I just opened it on the subway this morning! While I don’t have too much reflection yet by way of plot summary, I already know I’m going to love Older’s familiar penchant for snarky character rapport and his skill for weaving Brooklyn as a character into what promises to be an amazing fantasy narrative. There was something wonderfully surreal in reading about Carlos Delacruz spirit hunting around Prospect Park as I walked down Flatbush Avenue this morning.

sunnesplendourWilda Williams, Fiction Editor, LJ Reviews
Over the Christmas holidays, I got sucked into a marathon binge watching of The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses, aired on PBS’s Great Performances. Featuring outstanding performances by the likes of Judi Dench, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sophie Okoneo as a fierce Queen Margaret of Anjou, the three lavishly produced films of William Shakespeare’s history plays—Henry VI, Parts 1 & 2, and Richard the III—graphically captures the brutality and viciousness of the dynastic civil wars that wracked England in the 15th century. (No wonder George R.R. Martin was inspired to pen Game of Thrones.) Winston Churchill once said that history is written by the victor, and some scholars feel Shakespeare’s plays were Tudor propaganda. Was King Richard really as evil and diabolical as depicted in Shakespeare’s tragedy and as played by Cumberbatch, who interestingly is a real-life descendant of the recently reinterred monarch? For fictional answers, I immediately turned to Josephine Tey’s classic 1951 The Daughter of Time (Peter Davies); I had loved this mystery as a teenager. Would it hold up to the test of time? Confined to a hospital bed with a broken leg, a bored Scotland Yard Insp. Alan Grant ponders the story of Richard and the two princes in the Tower. Did he really have his nephews murdered so he could become king? With the research help of a friend who works at the British Museum and drawing on the traditional crime-solving factors of means, motive, and opportunity, Grant reaches the conclusion that Richard’s successor, Henry Tudor, was more likely the guilty party. Despite a bit of out-of-date mustiness (I do wonder what Tey would have done with the new discoveries about Richard—scoliosis instead of a hunchback!), the novel holds up pretty well as a fascinating study on how history is written and myths are created. For my subway reading, I have just downloaded from the New York Public Library Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour (St. Martin’s), which offers an equally sympathetic but more conventional take on the last Plantagenet.




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