You’re Into Horse Racing — Or True Crime

Love Judy Blume or Watched Every Episode of VH1’s ‘I Love the ‘90s”

Hi friends,

Happy National Book Lover’s Day. I was delighted to learn of this holiday’s existence last week. According to the National Day Calendar, to observe the holiday, we “Sit back, relax and READ!” Sounds like the perfect day to me.

One other day to mark on your calendar: Bookstore Romance Day is Saturday, August 21. As the name implies, it’s day when bookstores nationwide celebrate romance readers and writers, often with sales and special events. You can see if your local bookstore is participating here. There are also a bunch of virtual events that you can learn more about and register for here. I’m hoping to make the one on “historical mystery, with love,” which features both Deanna Rayborn and Sherry Thomas.

And, now, what to read if…

You Know the Saratoga Racetrack is “The August Place To Be”

Blood Lines by Melissa del Bosque

Here in New York State’s Capital District, the partial re-opening of the Saratoga racetrack, where thoroughbred horses compete, is a big deal. Growing up, each year, my family would spend a day picnicking at the track. It is, quite possibly, the best place for people watching in the world, drawing jockeys, millionaires and bookies (and sometimes bookies who are millionaires).

Melissa del Bosque’s Blood Lines takes us into the high-stakes world of Quarter Horse racing, a form popular in the American West, introducing readers to cowboys and horse breeders. But Blood Lines isn’t just a peek into horse auctions and training sessions. It’s also a true crime chronicle that carefully depicts how a team of FBI agents dismantled a Mexican drug cartel laundering money into the U.S. by buying expensive Quarter Horses.

Del Bosque has spent decades covering the U.S/Mexico border, and her expertise — as well as her reporting chops — are on display throughout the book. She explains complex financial transactions in simple terms her readers can understand and creates fully drawn characters. Del Bosque writes about the violence committed by the cartels — kidnapping, murder and more — but never in a way that feels gratuitous. It’s difficult to make a book about money laundering feel like a thriller, but with Blood Lines, Del Bosque has done just that.

Bingo Boxes this Book Checks: Nonfiction, debut

You Wish Judy Blume Would Write a Graphic Novel

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki 

I mentioned last week that I went to the library and grabbed a bunch of graphic novels. This One Summer was in the stack, and I’m so glad. It’s a YA graphic novel that channels Judy Blume’s candid writing style, frankly addressing teen pregnancy, infertility and depression. And, like Blume’s work, it’s faced criticism and has been banned in libraries nationwide.

This One Summer follows Rose, who is 12 or so, and her friend Windy, who spend every summer together at Awago Beach. In contrast to their previous summers together, the girls are now more aware of the lives of the adults around them — Rose’s parents are going through a rough patch and her mother is struggling with depression — and the teenagers who live in Awago year-round. They’re straddling the world of childhood and their pending teen years, trying out adult language while also counting on their parents to carry them home if they’re tired.

The book, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by her cousin Jillian, features a soothing blue and purple color palette that brings to life both the heat of summer days and the cool evenings. It’s the first graphic novel to win the prestigious Caldecott Award, and between its deft handling of complex subject matter and gorgeous illustrations, it’s easy to see why.

Bingo Boxes this Book Checks: YA/Middle Grade book, Summer That Changed Everything book, graphic novel

Love this newsletter? Hitting the heart at the top or bottom of this email each week helps new people find it.

You Share My Love of The Talking Heads

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

After last week’s ‘80s recommendation, a subscriber asked for a book set in the 1990s to fill out the “book set in the decade you were born” Bingo box. My mind immediately went to Writers & Lovers, Lily King’s recent bestseller about a lost 31-year-old woman trying to make her way in 1997.

In between multiple references to David Byrne (one of the book’s pivotal scenes takes place at a Talking Heads concert) and Ben Folds, King writes eloquently about Casey Peabody, a writer and former child golf prodigy grieving the death of her mother. Casey is living in a moldy garage, trying to finish her novel and waiting tables. While her friends have given up their creative ambitions for 9-to-5 jobs, Casey is clutching to hers. When she falls for two different men — both writers with very different approaches to the craft — her life grows even more complicated as she struggles to figure out what future she wants for herself.

Casey is the type of protagonist you root for, wanting her to succeed. I often really wanted to just hug her. King incorporates some wry commentary on the world of book publishing and its frequent obsession with “male genius” (I’m convinced one of the characters is based on Jonathan Franzen). While often dark in its subject matter, Writers & Lovers is a warm book that will stay with you long after you read it.

Bingo boxes this book checks: Book set in the decade you were born (if you’re a ‘90s baby), book set in a place you want to visit (if you’re dying to go to Boston)


You can catch up on last week’s recs here and read my Q&A with author Laura Hankin here.

We’ve had a few new readers subscribe to What To Read If since the launch of our Summer Reading Bingo game, so here’s a quick recap. Fill out the following card with the books you read this summer (only count each book for one category).

You can find an editable version of the card here. Once you have five in a row, submit it here and you’ll be entered into a raffle for a gift certificate to an independent bookstore. The deadline is Friday, September 10th.

If you need help with a certain Bingo box, let me know and I’ll send you a rec.


What to Read If is a free weekly book recommendation newsletter. Need a rec? Want to gush about a book? Reply to this email, leave a comment or find me on Twitter @elizabethheld.

If you’re reading this on Substack or were forwarded this email, and you’d like to subscribe, click the button below.

Disclosure: I am an affiliate of Bookshop.org and I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.