New Year, New Crop | What We’re Reading & Watching

Even if the new year is an arbitrary construct, it seems to motivate the people of “What We’re Reading & Watching” to make resolutions: to read more; to watch more; and most importantly (to me), write more about what they’re watching and reading. This 2018 opener features some new contributors: Junior Library Guild Assistant Editor Lee Prout joins the crew and talks about winter weather, British sleuths, and Brooklyn real estate. Yep, she fits right in. In addition, LJ reviewer Cynthia Lee (Cindy) Knight, spurred by LJ editors’ tips for writing short in a recent reviewers’ gazette, talks about writing and editing tomes, as well as a Sidney Lumet–helmed movie she’s still pondering in a guest star box below.

Veteran WWR/W members come out in full force to discuss their latest conquests (attaboy, Tyler!), their newly discovered authors (go Mahnaz, go!; watch out for that car, Ashleigh!), new technologies (Sarah B, meet Alexa), the *New* York Times “The Lives They Lived” essays (Willy’s New Year’s Day party-prep reading), new books in a favorite series (Meredith’s comfort reading), and new formats (me in a southbound minivan with a huge audiobook about a huge personality during incredible times). Bring it on, 2018, we’re armed (with books and movies) and ready!

Sarah Bayliss, Associate Editor, School Library Journal
I thoroughly enjoyed Dan Brown’s world-tilting thriller Origin (Doubleday) over the holidays. An AI personal assistant/disembodied voice named Winston is a major protagonist in this fun, roller-coaster book, set at the Guggenheim Bilbao and in Barcelona, with total architectural/artistic accuracy.

Since my family recently acquired an Amazon Alexa, I see that Brown’s vision of a pleasant computer voice that you start to feel friendly with, rely on, and allow to make decisions for you is not far off (and this will be totally normal for kiddies growing up with one). Alexa has all the answers—what’s playing at the movies nearby and when; the best “relaxing music” selection to play when she wakes you up in the morning at the designated time, just for starters. Imagine the possibilities when she really gets to know your likes and dislikes. The future is here?

Mahnaz Dar, Reference & Professional Reading Editor, LJS
Nothing can compare with the joy of discovering a new author, and lately I’ve been exploring the work of Jean Hanff Korelitz with delight. The Devil and Webster (Grand Central) is set at a New England college (loosely based on Dartmouth), where the institution’s president looks on in horror as protests erupt after a popular professor is denied tenure. I love a good school story. Since I’m more accustomed to reading them from the student point of view, assuming the perspective of “The Man” (so to speak) was intriguing. After The Devil and Webster, I moved on to Admission. Korelitz once again follows a college administrator: this time, an admissions officer at Princeton who continues to vet mountains of applications even as her personal life falls apart. With both titles, the author writes with a mixture of sympathy and snark, empathizing with her protagonists even as she sends up young people’s impassioned if sometimes misguided urge to storm the barricades and arbitrary hell that is the college application process.

Liz French, Senior Editor, LJ Reviews
Over the holidays, the man, the dog, and I drove down to Florida to visit my mom (it was warm there at the time, hallelujah!). The drive lasted just as long as the visit, but we took some detours along the way (St. Augustine, FL; Savannah, GA) and also put a big dent in the audiobook version of Joe Hagan’s Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine (Knopf). Actor Dennis Boutsikaris has the perfect voice for reading this book about the wild and crazy Sixties and the even wilder 24-year-old Wenner as he connives, cajoles, and cons his way to the top of the rock pile. Hagan turns some stories on their heads; this disquisition makes me see events such as the fateful Altamont free concert, and personalities such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and definitely Wenner in a new and unflattering light. It’s good and gossipy, too, and I really like how Boutsikaris, a frequent guest star on Law & Order and its spin-off Law & Order: SVU (usually as left-leaning activist lawyers), lightens the narration just a bit to read women’s parts, rare as they are in this boys’ club bio. He also does a mean air quote.

Tyler Hixson, Librarian, Brooklyn Public Library
Since I was 11, I have tried to read J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” books at least once a year, making this the 1,730,965,762,387th time I’ve ventured into Middle-Earth. For those who don’t know the story, it goes something like this: A middle-aged man goes on a cross-country hike with some of his friends to throw his uncle’s ring into a volcano (I think that’s Brandon Sanderson’s summarization).

I always get to the same part (the Entmoot—boring in the film, brain-numbingly dull in the book) before I succumb to the soporific-ness of some of Tolkien’s prose. However, this year has been different, for whatever reason. Maybe it’s the new year. Maybe it’s the benefit of one more year of wisdom under my belt. Maybe it’s just that I’m tired of failure. In any case, I’ve plowed through the Entmoot and finished the first half of The Two Towers, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised that I’m enjoying the journey like I never have before. I’m no longer bored by the minute description of rivers and forests; in fact, those details have enhanced my worldview, if you will, of Middle-Earth. I understand the medieval dialog a little better and laugh out loud at some of Merry and Pippin’s jokes. I haven’t gotten into the meat of Frodo and Sam’s journey yet, but I honestly can’t wait, and you have no idea how good it feels finally to say that about The Lord of the Rings. If you have had similar problems with Tolkien’s magnum opus, or with any other book you consider your Everest, I urge you to crack it open and start again. It can be your New Year’s resolution!

Lee Prout, Assistant Editor, JLG
It turns out my usually overheated apartment gets drafty when the temperature dips to single digits, so I happily curled up on my couch over the holidays with Cate Holahan’s thriller, Lies She Told (Crooked Lane). The narrator Liza, a romantic suspense author under deadline pressure, drafts a new novel. Chapters starring heroine Beth, a new mother whose husband is having an affair, alternate with Liza’s own story. Events of the two women’s lives reverberate in surprising ways as Holahan explores the way writers mine real life for material. I admit I giggled (to keep from crying?) when the “rough” Brooklyn neighborhood where Liza chases a clue was revealed to be the same one I was priced out of two years ago. It was a painful validation of how quickly NYC real estate can turn on you. On the plus side, much of the book takes place in the summer and in Montauk, NY, so it was fun to escape to a warmer climate. I plan to spend a cozy future weekend reading the author’s previous novel, The Widower’s Wife, which has enticed me with promises of a mysterious disappearance from a Caribbean cruise and a retired NYPD insurance investigator.

I’m also a mystery fan when it comes to television shows and recently finished Season 3 of Broadchurch, always a stunner. So I dove into Season 2 of the British crime drama Happy Valley starring Sarah Lancashire as tough-as-nails police sergeant Catherine Cawood. Cawood’s family connection to heinous villain Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton) is one of the knottiest situations I’ve seen on television, and it’s played out convincingly by all actors involved. I take a special delight in watching Lancashire bulldoze the perps of Northern England because she was just as believable in the last role I saw her in, as the painfully proper head of ladieswear, Miss Audrey, in the department store drama The Paradise. I came across her performances in this order by coincidence, and I recommended pairing these shows for the purpose of appreciating Lancashire’s range.

Meredith Schwartz, Executive Editor, LJ
I just finished Neogenesis (Baen), the latest installment in Sharon Lee & Steve Miller’s sprawling space opera “Liaden Universe” series, which is some of my go-to comfort reading. I’m also halfway through Cat Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues (Saga), in which the author explores the cumulative collateral damage to superheroes’ girlfriends. I’ve heard Valente read from this work and was charmed, but lately it’s been too cold and snowy to carry around my physical (signed) copy of the book, so my reading is on hold. Next up: The Will To Battle (Tor), Book 3 of the “Terra Ignota” series by Ada Palmer, which began with Too Like the Lightning. Palmer manages to explore genuinely original political structures of the future, not just replicate the empire for no apparent reason, and yet still provides compelling palace intrigue as well as interesting changes on gender, ethics, and religion.

Ashleigh Williams, Editorial Assistant, School Library Journal
I just started Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (Holt) after seeing author Daniel José Older’s tweet that he “damn near got hit by a car reading it,” which speaks to the type of literary experience I’m constantly seeking. Zélie Adebola is a divîner, a descendant of the ancient maji who were wiped out when the cruel king of Orïsha executed all who could wield magic. Magic has been dead across the land ever since—at least, that’s what everyone thought. I’m only 80 pages in (this sizable novel clocks in at almost 600 pages total), but I’m already enamored with passionate, impulsive Zélie, her brother Tzain, discontented princess Amari, and the mystical world in which they’re struggling to survive. Apparently this book is already slated for the big screen; Adeyemi’s prose is supremely cinematic, with poignant reflections on Zélie’s tragic past cutting seamlessly to thrilling action sequences. I’ll definitely be there on opening day!

Wilda Williams, Fiction Editor, LJ Reviews
I spent the holiday weekend prepping for my New Year’s Day open house, watching The “Thin Man” movie marathon on TCM, and perusing the annual edition of the New York Times Magazine’s “The Lives They Lived,” which commemorates the famous and not-so-famous people who died in the previous year. It’s the one issue that I read from cover to cover because I am especially intrigued by the profiles of those who might have been less celebrated than Mary Tyler Moore, Derek Walcott, and Glen Campbell, but who embodied courage, imagination, resourcefulness, eccentricity, and other qualities that inspire me. There’s poet Irina Ratushinskaya (b. 1954), whose road to the Soviet labor camps as a dissident began in the fifth grade when a fellow student refused to inform on his classmatess. Pioneering African American sign language interpreter Shirley Childress Johnson (b. 1947) translated the rhythm of acclaimed a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock’s songs through her body and her hands. David Axelrod, a self-described ichthyologist and founder of a pet-book publishing empire, was supposedly once censured by a professor for performing a Caesarean on a guppy. And as a fan of collage art, I was delighted to learn that Pulitzer Prize–winning poet John Ashbery crafted collages like his poems. “Collage is central to his process,” said Ashbery’s husband David Kermani. “You can’t really describe what his collages are specifically about, but they deal with the process and language itself. He was, perhaps, communicating the feeling of creativity.”

LJ Reviewer Cynthia Lee Knight:
What I’m Reading & Watching

I recently read Roy Peter Clark’s How To Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times (Little, Brown). No, it’s not about how to compose effective tweets, although he does discuss this very short form of communication. It’s about the author’s admiration for the exquisite craft of short, precise prose wherever he finds it: in advertisements, quotations, prayers, bumper stickers, song lyrics, offering loads of techniques for mastering the form. And what could be more relevant to writing LJ book reviews in 175–200 words? After reading this title, I see the review length requirement less as an annoying restriction and more as a concise writing challenge.

I’ve also been reading about editors (Robert Gottlieb’s Avid Reader: A Life; Picador), editing (What Editors Do: The Art, Craft, and Business of Editing, ed. by Peter Ginna; Univ. of Chicago), and nonfiction writing (Susan Rabiner & Alfred Fortunato’s Thinking Like Your Editor: How To Write Great Serious Nonfiction—And Get It Published; Norton). Am I reading these because I want to be an editor or author? Absolutely not! But it’s fascinating to learn about the process of publishing—all that a work goes through before it gets to me, as well as my role in the enterprise.

I recently watched Sidney Lumet’s 1964 classic Fail-Safe (based on the 1962 Eugene Burdick-Harvey Wheeler novel of the same name). I was gripped by the throat. At some point, I wasn’t just watching the film (about the high price paid for nuclear detente systems), I was in the story. It felt so claustrophobic, as the plot so relentlessly goes down a rabbit hole that I had to pause a few times to recompose myself. Not that pausing did much good. This film has an absolute killer ending that you will not guess in a million years. I watch a lot of grim and gritty British police dramas, but nothing compares to this.

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. Cindy Knight says:

    Lee Prout—I so agree about watching the exquisite pairing of Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley and in The Paradise. (If you’d like another example of her acting range, watch her in Last Tango in Halifax.) An equally amazing pairing is good James Norton in Grantchester and and very bad James Norton in Happy Valley. It sort of makes your head spin! But in a good way.

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