Setting as appeal

I belong to a group on Facebook called “What Should I Read Next?” It is mobbed by more than 53,000 eager readers who seem equally motivated to share what they like and learn what others have discovered. I joined the group for a few different reasons:

  1. I wanted to keep up with what was popular out there right now with regular readers (not librarians, reviewers, and other colleagues);
  2. I saw it as a chance to practice my own readers’ advisory skills in a social media format, to see what works best;
  3. I thought by sharing my reviews, I could find more followers for my obscure little blog!

whatshouldiread

It’s actually working quite well: I’m discovering that many readers fish in a shallow pond of popular titles and are therefore all reading a lot of the same books, which both gives me those titles and also allows me to make suggestions of others not as popular but perhaps as good or better reads. I am learning a lot about how to work as an advisor in a written online format; after I referred someone to a book by writing a short synopsis in the comments, three separate people wrote back to me and said some variation of, “I wish other people would give a little description with their recommendations so I would know whether I would even be interested in looking this book up on Amazon or Goodreads.” So now, every time I make a recommendation, I throw in either a short annotation or at the least some characteristic of the book that I think people would be interested to know (such as, “It develops slowly but the characters are so lifelike you expect to meet them on the street and invite them for coffee!”). And both my Facebook page and this blog have picked up a dozen new followers since I began this “relationship” with other online readers.

I am also discovering that, like many librarians who think they have good readers’ advisory skills, regular people also think it is sufficient to recommend a book based on what they like, rather than trying to find out what the person who is asking might prefer. I get a little impatient sometimes when a mom asks for realistic books for her 13-year-old son and someone posts “Harry Potter!” Harry Potter is not the answer to everyone’s reading needs, people!

Anyway, suffice to say that the interaction with the subscribers to this page is really highlighting and pinpointing their needs, along with how poorly they are being served when people concentrate too much on the books and not on the readers themselves.

Recently, someone wrote that her mother was about to have surgery and had asked her to stockpile some titles she would enjoy during recovery. The criteria was, “She likes books that take place at the beach. Her dream is to live in a lighthouse.”

Lighthouse

People immediately started throwing out names of authors who write books that are set on the Outer Banks, the Jersey shore, or the beaches of Cornwall. Some of them fall into the category of actual “beach reads”—that is, lightweight and frothy, perfect for a summer vacay book. Others, though, had such a wide variety of styles and stories that I wondered, “Would anyone really read books just because they were set in a preferred location?”

Then I thought about myself and the many books I have read that were set on the streets of Paris, and how some of them, though
frankly mediocre, still pulled a decent rating from me because of their evocative development of “setting.” So, as an experiment (since I also like the ocean), I am reading a few of the books mentioned, to see if the right “environment” in a book can offset such things as poor writing, shallow character development, or the lack of a cohesive
story line.

I also proposed to one reader who was a big fan of Kate Morton that she might, if she likes mysteries, also enjoy the books of Tana French. She had never heard of French, and asked me why I thought so. My reply was, People who like Kate Morton are willing to accept extremely slow pacing while Morton sets up place and characters in what sometimes lasts hundreds of pages. Tana French, although writing in a different genre, subscribes to the same style.

Tortoise and hare racing

My premise here is that people who are willing to read in multiple genres may still gravitate to the same type of book in terms of reading appeal, i.e., this slow pacing shared by these two authors, rather than picking something fast-paced in one and slow in another. I don’t know whether that reader will take me up on the Tana French challenge; she said “Thanks for the tip” rather than “I’ll rush right out and read one.” But I’m hoping that if she does, she will come back to me and confirm or deny my theory. (I realize that basing it on one person isn’t good data collection, but everything starts with a first step….)

I will report back on these ponderings!

 

Novel Christmas

For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!

XmasHolyFor ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.

First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.

Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.

In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.

XmasTreeOne of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.

Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:

The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.

There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.

James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.

Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.

In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.

XmasMistletoeAnne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).

Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.

And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.

In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.

One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.

In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.

XmasWreathAnd then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:

Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:

In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.

In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.

If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year!   —The Book Adept

YuleJoy

Angst and romance

That headline may be a little misleading. The angst isn’t necessarily in the romance, it’s more about the romance.

TL;DR—click here to read a summary of this post.

People who claim to be expert (or at least, er, Adept) at readers’ advisory need to be well-rounded enough as readers to be able to recommend books in every genre, but I confess there are a few in which I am not well versed. One is romance; while I enjoy the occasional book dubbed a “cozy,” wherein the romance is not the entire point of the story, I am mostly a novice and a stranger when it comes to reading mainstream romance.

I did read a few Harlequins in my youth, because my mother adored them so they were always lying around the house. And in my 30s, when I was struggling to become a writer, it occurred to me that an easy way to make a buck might be to try my hand at writing one. I went so far as to send away to Harlequin for the specs to their various series, but I was put off by the incredibly stereotypical requirements. There was a set number of pages, a prescribed age range for the man and a similar profile for the woman (men were late 20s to early 40s, while the women had to be 18-24), and a specific story structure to follow. I decided, from the heights of youthful idealism, that this would be a betrayal of principle and never went farther with that aspiration.

No longer are romances planned out in that way—not even those from Harlequin. Not even the sacred HEA (happily ever after) is guaranteed any longer! There are still prevailing formulas, but with a lot more wiggle room. But romance as a genre is still a relative stranger to me, so I enrolled in an online readers’ advisory class for romance to see if I could garner some tips about referring romance readers to their ideal books.

We were assigned two books to read in the second week: A Rogue by Any Other Name, by Sarah MacLean, and What the Librarian Did, by Karina Bliss.

rogue1Of the former, I’m not going to say much, except that if this is supposed to be a good example of a contemporary historical romance, then the bar has been set way too low.

Clichés abounded, human interactions were awkward, dialogue was overdramatic and talky, and historical context was distinctly lacking. A few torrid sex scenes (and the requisite ripped bodice) were just not enough to carry the rest.

On the other hand, What the Librarian Did surprised me. I had low expectations for a Harlequin based on what I used to read in my (long-ago) youth, but this book had good characters with assets and flaws, a believable story line, and a subplot that had nothing much to do with the romance, but was therefore a nice balancer. I liked it!

librariandidThe story follows Rachel Robinson (ha-ha, Ms. Robinson), a university librarian, who has a secret in her long-ago past that is about to come back to haunt her. Meanwhile, new student Devin Freedman is garnering an extravagant amount of attention from everyone except Rachel, who’s never heard of him. Devin, lead guitarist in a wildly successful American rock band, has quit the biz to return to his native New Zealand and pursue a business degree. Rachel encounters him on his first day at school when he arrives to tour the library, and her lack of knowledge about him piques his curiosity, while she takes one look at his bad-boy charms and is intrigued, despite herself. The cat-and-mouse that follows switches off from one to the other, and is made more complex by the intrusion of the secret from Rachel’s past, with which both of them must come to terms.

The first thing I liked is that these characters are both adults in their 30s. There was none of this experienced macho man mentoring the naive young girl nonsense—these are two people with an equal amount of years behind them, multiple relationships (and failed marriages, on Devin’s part), and a lot of complex baggage. But there is also “the spark,” which is the essential ingredient for a really satisfying romance, in my opinion, and Devin and Rachel definitely have it. Add to that wit and humor and the aforementioned plot twist complication, and you have a story. I’m all about the story, so this book made me happy!

Hopefully I can find more like this to give to my readers’ advisory clients.

(One caveat: The cover looks like something from the 1970s meant to appeal to swoony teenagers. Which is one reason why I don’t spontaneously pick up Harlequin novels! I think it highly probably that the best thing ever to happen to romance readers is the anonymity of the Kindle!)BlogDingbat

TL;DR: A Rogue by Any Other Name was clichéd, overdramatic, and poorly reflected its historical context. What the Librarian Did had believable characters, an interesting story line and subplot, and a satisfying ending, and also contained wit and humor.

Why dystopian fiction?

mockingjay-pinWhy have dystopian and post-apocalyptic books become and remained so popular? As a teen librarian, this was one of the questions most frequently asked of me (mostly by bewildered parents and teachers), so I recently included my (extensive) answer in a speculative fiction lecture to my Young Adult Literature class.

Included in the dystopian and apocalyptic sub-genre are books addressing the degradation of the planet, painting societies that have run out of fossil fuels, societies that have run out of water, numerous scenarios of global warming, and societies in which the entire infrastructure has broken down and created a scavenger mentality. There are stories addressing the breakdown of civil society, with the rise of oppressive religions and philosophies and the persecution of “the others,” and experimenting with ideas about who those others of the future will be—will they still be gay people, Jewish people, Muslims, people of color? Or will the society shift and find different victims on which to avenge itself?

Some observers of the success of this publishing niche point to 9/11 and the many terrorist events before and after it as an existential catalyst to make people consider end-of-the-world scenarios. But dystopian fiction was around long before any of our current destruction scenarios, starting in 1932 with Brave New World, and featuring such classics between then and now as Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for LeibowitzThe Handmaid’s Tale, The Road, and Parable of the Sower. And in addition to those considered classics, there are equally enduring stories (even though some of them are dated) such as Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank; Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan; War Day, by James Kunetka and Whitley Streiber; Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute; and The Family Tree and The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri S. Tepper.

alasbabylon

The question is, though: Why are these books so popular, especially with teens?

Before The Hunger Games ever spurred a glut of dystopian and post-apocalyptic books on the teen market, there were forays into this downbeat science fiction sub-genre of dark, diminished futures focused on survival: cautionary tales such as Feed, by M. T. Anderson and The House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer; and future projections such as Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, and the chilling Unwind (and sequels) by Neal Shusterman. After The Hunger Games, which is the all-time best-selling book series (surpassing even Harry Potter and Twilight!), the reading public went crazy for such books as Ready Player One and Epitaph Road, and overdosed on such series as The Maze Runner, Divergent and sequels, and The Young Elites.

UnwindSome of these works are focused on the immediate hereafter, while others project centuries ahead to speculate on what a future world would look like after the immediate destructive effects have subsided. If adults are feeling anxious enough to write these books, it’s probable that their anxieties are being communicated to their teenagers through more than popular fiction and the movies made from it.

Reading about a society that is worse than yours, or a scenario in which the worst that could possibly happen has transpired—but people have survived and are using their ingenuity and determination to make things better—can be reassuring.

There is also the advantage of being able to talk about socially unacceptable topics in a fictional arena and work out how you feel about them or how you should feel about them. Calling a political regime into question, or rebelling against a religion or cultural restriction by reading about it can help a teen (or an adult) who can’t quite bring him- or herself to rebel in real life, by offering some relief, or possibly even guidance and encouragement. Authors can offer pointed commentary about societal trends (as did the authors of Brave New World and 1984) from within a fictional setting and gain an audience while not suffering the criticism or retribution they might receive if their comments were offered in plain speech.

Teens can use these books as metaphors to work out their own problems with the real world. Teen brains are not done maturing yet, and many teens are filled with rage and fear and longing, and have trouble articulating their thoughts and feelings; so fiction that provides a cathartic release and relief of these emotions is helpful. These books can also inspire us by the actions of their courageous, defiant protagonists who overcome barriers and limitations or come to the realization of their own shortcomings and seek to do better.

Ultimately, it is also fiction that, once again, provides the opportunity for the learning of empathy.

“Reading good literature can be a powerful way to develop empathy. Empathy could be one of the most important qualities to develop in young citizens who will go on to be successful actors in a complicated world.”

—Dr. Brené Brown

Fantasy fiction

What is the appeal of fantasy fiction? People who don’t read fantasy ask this question a lot. Here are some reasons why people might enjoy reading fantasy:

Escapism: travel into another WORLD, culture, history, set of natural laws

Heroism: the exploration of greater themes, unconscious hopes and aspirations, the experience of admiration and emotion

Specialness: a hidden talent for magic…

Wonder: the appeal of the unfamiliar

Romance: Not just “couples” romance, but the romance of the road, the charisma of the swashbuckler, etc.

Simplicity: the straightforward moral code of good and evil

“The more rational the world becomes,
the more we demand the irrational in our fiction.
The genre starts where science ends.”

—Mark Chadbourn