Picking Up Books | What We’re Reading (& Watching)

What a whirl the spring and summer has been for the “What We’re Reading & Watching” gang! We survived LJ’s annual Day of Dialog (DoD), BookExpo (formerly Book Expo America, or BEA for you acronym fans), and then a quick swoop into Chicago for the ALA Annual conference, June 22–27. Books ruled all over, and many of us grabbed ARCs at the various cons we attended. I asked my colleagues to talk about the great finds from any or all of those gatherings and got some pretty fantastic responses. See below! And since this is a bunch of free thinkers and actors, we have some that went their own way and wrote about non-con books. We accept all kinds here, as long as you’re reading—or ahem, watching.

Della Farrell, Assistant Editor, SLJ Reviews
I’m going against the grain by writing about two books that I did not pick up at DoD/BookExpo. I can’t stop raving about Deborah Noyes’s latest work of nonfiction for tweens and teens, The Magician and the Spirits (Viking). Part biography of Harry Houdini and part examination of the spiritualist movement in the early 20th century, this title expertly probes debates that are still relevant today, namely the limits of scientific knowledge when it comes to the afterlife and the tough business of exposing charlatans who profit on the public’s insecurities.

And on a similar note, I just started Joanna Lowell’s gothic romance Dark Season (Crimson Romance), which was starred by LJ’s Managing Editor, Bette-Lee Fox, in a 2016 Xpress Review. Ella Arlington, newly orphaned, escapes to London to avoid her cruel cousin’s plan to have her institutionalized because of her epilepsy. But a chance encounter at a séance puts her in the path of Isidore Blackwood, a viscount with secrets—dead fiancée–type secrets. I’m hooked.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Women of all ages and eras are ruling my book rack. I just completed Michael Connelly’s first police procedural starring a female protagonist, Renée Ballard. It’s called The Late Show (Little, Brown), which refers to the graveyard shift, where LAPD detective Ballard has been assigned after running afoul of a supervisor: she sued him for harassment; he won the case because her partner wouldn’t verify her testimony; her supervisor then condemned her to the night shift. The thing with the night shift is, the detectives have to turn cases over to their daytime counterparts at the end of their shift. This suits Ballard’s partner just fine, but she is more stubborn, pursuing cases on her own and running down leads, which of course puts her in conflict with that bad boss man.

I’m also reading one of several DoD titles I grabbed after that event: Joanna Scutts’s The Extra Woman: How Marjorie Hillis Led a Generation of Women To Live Alone and Like It (Liveright: Norton) is a biography/sociological study of a very influential woman of the 1930s. It pairs well with Linda Simon’s Lost Girls: The Invention of the Flapper (Reaktion), which I’m reviewing for my colleague Stephanie Sendaula. Finally, at the New York Review of Books’ booth at BookExpo, I scored a copy of Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz. It’s the second title by my favorite L.A. lady of the Seventies; my excited Twittering caught the attention of the Counterpoint people, who promptly sent me Babitz’s Sex and Rage, her third work. Oh riches! I cannot resist quoting from Slow Days, Fast Company:

If you’re wondering why I was tossing my friends at Nikki like fish, you’re probably a person who has no tendency for society and who does not like to spend hours on the phone reliving parties. You do not like to find things out from women. One afternoon I was sitting on a veranda at a party with about six women and the information that was exchanged, commonly called gossip, was enough to run the world for months. Suddenly a hush fell over the women and I looked around and there was a man. The women slid masks over their faces, the subject changed, the man said, “What are all you girls doing out here? Come in and join the party.” And the summit conference was over.

Laura Girmscheid, Research Manager, LJS
The DoD ARC I was most excited to read was Gabrielle Zevin’s new book, Young Jane Young (Algonquin). Aviva Grossman is a promising political science/Spanish literature major interning for a local Florida congressman. When her affair with the politician is found out (made worse by details she had published in a blog), Aviva escapes by cutting ties with her family, changing her name to Jane Young, and moving to Maine. Years after settling in a small coastal town and with a mayoral bid underway, her 13-year-old daughter, Ruby, sets out to find out who her father is, with the potential to upset everything.

This book is divided into five sections, each written from a different character’s point of view at various points in the story—Aviva’s mom, Rachel; Jane; Ruby; the congressman’s wife, Embeth; and Aviva. I enjoyed the varying generational perspectives. The last section (Aviva’s “Choose Your Own…”) is written in the second person, which is handled in a humorous way.

Tyler Hixson, WWR/WWW emeritus
I finally got around to reading Marcus Sedgwick’s Saint Death (Roaring Brook) after it had been starred (and raved about by SLJ Reviews Manager Shelley Diaz), and it. was. incredible. It follows a single day in the life of Arturo, a young man living in a Mexican shanty town just across the U.S. border, pulled into the violent underworld of the cartels that control the border by his long-lost friend Faustino. Arturo spends his life trying to avoid and ignore the violence around him, but when Faustino arrives at his doorstep asking for help after spending a year missing and confesses that he stole $1,000 from his boss to send his girlfriend and daughter Stateside, Arturo is helplessly swallowed up by the gangs that populate Juárez. It is heart-wrenching to see Arturo attempt everything to save his and his friend’s lives. Saint Death is a stark commentary on the brutality of life in Mexican cartel towns, and really, just a beautifully written novel. Printz Award beautiful, perhaps?

Molly Hone, WWR emerita
Now that I’m done with library school, I am reading what I want, when I want, and it is wonderful (and I think it’s helping with readers’ advisory at work!). My first postgrad choice is Fannie Flagg’s The Whole Town’s Talking (Random), a lovely story about the fictional town of Elmwood Springs, MO, and the people who settle it in the late 19th century. This is charming historical fiction that, unsurprisingly, reminds me of Flagg’s breakout 1987 novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (Random). For those looking for a feel-good summer read, I can’t recommend it enough.

I’m also listening to Storm Front, the first in Jim Butcher’s long-running “Dresden Files” series (Brilliance Audio). I’m sure this book—a noir-fantasy hybrid about a private detective and wizard named Harry Dresden—is just as absorbing in print, but I can’t imagine it without the cool, nuanced narration of James Marsters (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame). Another must-read (or must-listen), especially for mystery fans.

Lisa Peet, Associate Editor, News & Features, LJ
I just reread Jesus’ Son (Farrar) for no particular reason other than that Denis Johnson died, and I remember being really knocked sideways when I first encountered his stories in the New Yorker in my mid-20s. I don’t reread often, so I was happy to find that this collection thrills me as much as the work did when I first read them almost 30 years ago. His use of language is still surprising—and considering all the fiction I’ve read since then, that’s pretty impressive—and those swooping, propulsive sentences continue to hit me on an almost physical level. That first graf of “Dirty Wedding” still does it for me:

I liked to sit up front and ride the fast ones all day long, I liked it when they brushed right up against the buildings north of the Loop and I especially liked it when the buildings dropped away into that bombed-out squalor a little farther north in which people (through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a—wham, the noise and dark dropped down around your head—tunnel) actually lived.

It’s like an old flame who still, surprisingly, looks fine at the reunion, even with a little less hair. I don’t find Johnson’s marginal folks as fascinating as I once did, no doubt because I’m middle-aged and staid and don’t know, or even really want to know, characters like that anymore; no hint of there-but-for-the-grace-of-God in my heart these days. That’s been replaced by a healthy middle-aged dose of compassion, which—pleasingly—deepens my appreciation of their hapless lot rather than dulls it.

So, cheers to Denis Johnson. I could sit down and unpack every sentence in this book and I still wouldn’t be able to figure out how he does it, but he does.

Stephanie Sendaula, Associate Editor, LJ Reviews
My long WWR write-up contains a month’s worth of reads, starting with Kate Moore’s The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks), which was one of the many books I read around BookExpo (and my favorite so far). It’s already received a lot of librarian attention, and for good reason. It’s a well-written, humanistic story that relates to several subject areas: war, love, loss, work, health, etc. Our reviewer Chad Statler says, “Often the daughters of immigrants, these women were lured to these prestigious and well-paying jobs unaware of the dangers of the radioactive paint present in their workplace—which caused their bodies and clothes to glow, even outside of work…. After nearly 20 years, several trials, and thousands of dollars in doctor and attorney fees, the women won a small measure of justice, but for some, it was too late.” I teared up while reading some of the stories; keep a box of tissues nearby if you know you’ll need one. Moore spoke at DoD, and after fangirling over the book, I told her that I wish I had heard this story before.

In between BookExpo and ALA, I had jury duty, which meant plenty of time for more reading—and from two additional DoD authors. I breezed through Young Jane Young (Algonquin) by Gabrielle Zevin, since I enjoyed one of her previous books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (a 2015 LJ Best Book). I also read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which our reviewer Terry Hong called “a magnificent, multilayered epic that’s perfect for eager readers and destined for major award lists.” Although I enjoyed both books, the characters in Little Fires Everywhere have stayed with me. I met a bookseller at ALA who had just finished (and loved) the novel, and I told her that I’m still thinking about Pearl and Izzy a few weeks later. I haven’t read Ng’s first book, but I’ve been meaning to, and this is giving me the motivation to start. I also found it interesting to read two books based in the 1990s back-to-back. Both touched on the relationship between Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton, and the differences in how women versus men are treated when they don’t do something that society perceives as moral.

I also read nearly all of Ben Blum’s Ranger Games: A Story of Soldiers, Family and an Inexplicable Crime (Doubleday), which I won’t say too much about since I’m still in the process of writing a review, but so far I’d recommend it. Similar to the previous two titles, this is a book that makes you question right and wrong. I didn’t know much about the crime (the day before deployment, the author’s cousin and some fellow U.S. Army Rangers robbed a bank) before I started reading, and sometimes I still don’t know what to think, which is probably testimony to the author’s great writing.

Lastly, since I’m often reading more than one book at a time, I’m almost done with Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story (S. & S.), a recommendation from our reviewer Janet Ingraham Dwyer. In her review, she wrote, “Janesville, WI, is home to politician Paul Ryan—and, until two days before Christmas in 2008, the longest-operating GM plant in the world…. Their post-GM paths are as typical as they are heartrending: daylong commutes to spend the workweek far from family; transitioning from being givers to recipients of charity; stubbornly hopeful boosterism with few tangible results; and a widening gap between the city’s elite class of bankers and politicians and the frustrated and increasingly desperate workers.” This book is the 2017 equivalent of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. I feel every emotion, hoping it will get better for someone, anyone. I don’t think this type of story only relates to Janesville, but to any area where one company is the main employer.



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

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