Books for Bookish People: Books that Feature Authors with Secrets

Last night, I finished reading In the Distance with You, by Carla Guelfenbein (review pending) and it set me to thinking about books in which the protagonists dig up the buried secrets of authors they love. The more I think about it, the fact that I really enjoy books about people diving into authors’ lives to understand this books is odd. When I read, I deliberately try not to learn about authors’ lives or processes because I feel like a book needs to stand on its own. But that’s literary criticism and this is reading books with layers of bookishness.

If you’re looking for booky books about people who write books, here are my favorites:

40440The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

This one was really popular when it came out and, every time I talk to someone who’s read it, readers gush about this disturbing Gothic tale. I’ve read this book several times and I still get sucked into the twists and turns. In this book, a biographer is summoned to the remote home of an enigmatic author. This author has told a bunch of different stories about her past as a smoke screen, but now that she’s gotten very old, she’s finally going to tell the truth.

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

This thriller gets more sinister by the chapter. It blows the cover off a bunch of authors’ secrets by following a group of Finnish writers as their circle disintegrates after their mentor disappears. The plot revolves around the question of where authors get their ideas and turns it into a deliciously brutal tale.

1232The Shadow of the Windby Carlos Ruiz Zafón

This is another classic pick. It’s the first literary novel that I can remember reading that was as engrossing as genre fiction. Within chapters, I felt like I was racing around Barcelona with the protagonist as he tried to find more books by an author who seemed to vanish into thin air. The best part of this book, which is the first in a loose series, is the Cemetery of Lost books—a place so magical and full of gravitas that I wish I could be buried there when I shuffle off*.

Bonus book! 

Crossing the Lines, by Sulari Gentil

This one isn’t exactly a book about authors with secrets, but it is one of my favorite books about writers. It’s hard to tell who is the real author in this book because the two protagonists appear to be writing each other into existence. Crossing the Lines is beautifully creative and original. I wish it got more attention.


* Here’s a bad joke: old librarians don’t die, they’re just deaccessioned.

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The Happily Unhappy Reader; Or, Why Don’t I Read Happy Books?

Recently, a reader said to me that she wanted to read something happy. She had just read a heavy book and wanted something lighter. I completely understand the impulse. Sometimes I need to read Terry Pratchett as a palette cleanser. But when she asked me for something happy, I blanked. I looked over all of the books that were currently on the shelves in my library’s browsing collection*, and all I could see were sad books, frightening books, and angry books. They’re all good reads…they’re just not light fare.

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Victor-Gabriel Gilbert

I’ve read a lot of the books in that collection and I really liked a lot of them. After the reader asked her question, I started to question why I read so many sad, frightening, and angry books. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me. I’ve always gravitated away from books with guaranteed happy endings for some reason. Perhaps it’s because happy endings, to me, so rarely seem deserved in fiction. Maybe it’s that I’m a pessimist and find unhappy books more believable.

The more I think about it, the more I suspect that it’s more than just that I find unhappy endings more plausible. I think it’s really because I feel content most of the time—content shading into happy. I hope I will never have to feel the emotions that characters feel, but I’m curious what it might be like to experience emotions on the other side of the spectrum. If a book is well written, I can feel a bit of the terror of a woman on the run from killers, like I did in Riley Sager’s Final Girls, or taste a bit of the tragedy and pride in an act of sacrifice, like at the end of Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Happy books just don’t compare to the range of the sad, frightening, and angry books. The closest I can get are funny books. The problem there is that I have a really weird sense of humor…but that’s another post.


* I work at an academic library, so most of our books are for academic use and not for fun reading.

Reading Registers; Or, Bouncing Between Genres*

For several years now, my reading choices have been driven by publication dates. Most of my books come as advanced reader copies via NetGalley and Edelweiss. Consequently, I end up bopping from genre to genre, from thriller to literary fiction to oddball science fiction to historical fiction, etc., etc. The jumps mean that I am always having to recalibrate my brain not unlike I have to when I adjust my register so that I can speak like a professional after hanging around with friends.

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Agnes Goodsir

It wouldn’t be fair to use the same yardstick to measure different books, even if it were possible. Apples and oranges and spaceships, after all. But swapping one yardstick for another (or switching registers) can be tough. It means changing your expectations about characterization, pacing, and themes in fairly radical ways.

When I read thrillers, science fiction, and mysteries, I can expect fast pacing and not-so-thorough character development. In these genres, the plot is the most important thing. If I read a couple of literary or historical fiction novels, I can wallow in leisurely plots and dive deeply into psychology. Jumping to one of the faster genres can seem like someone suddenly pressed the fast forward button on my reading. Then, when I switch back, I have to deliberately slow down so that I can think more about subtext or I will miss what the book is all about.

If nothing else, I get a good mental workout when I switch genres. The change up means that I have to purposefully think about what I’m reading in a way that I don’t when I get into a groove. Jumping genres means that I don’t take things for granted, even if, at times, it feels like I have mentally run over a speed bump and tripped. I’ve come to love these little moments when I pick my brain up, dust it off, and have a good look around**. I end up thinking about how genre works and how authors play around with expectations as much as I think about what happens, how the characters grow, and whether I liked the ending.

This kind of reading also means that I am less likely to fall into a rut. If I ever got bored of reading, I don’t know what I would do with myself.


* I tried so hard to think of an alliterative word, but failed.
** I have lost count of the number of similes/metaphors I’ve stuffed into this post to keep from using the same words too many times.

A Weird Fiction Thing I Like: Stories About Buildings Full of Strangers

One of my weird, bookish thrills is finding new genre-lets that delight me. My most recent discovery is that I love reading books about buildings full of people: hotels, apartment buildings, boarding schools. Something about buildings where strangers live in close proximity and their stories weave together fascinates me, especially when there’s a mystery involved. I suspect my joy in this kind of story springs from my love of serendipity and coincidence, and how such events can often make it seem like fate is taking a hand in peoples’ lives.

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Sara Hayden

Here are some of my favorites in this sub-genre:

Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum

This is the first novel I can recall of this type. It tells the stories of several guests in a Berlin hotel who bump into each other and then carom off into their own adventures or tragedies. It’s like getting several novels all for the price of one.

The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

This bizarre mystery takes place in a remote hotel. Detective Glebsky was just looking for a place to take a holiday, but lands smack in the middle of a lot of weirdness.

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

This strange novel is one of the best mysteries I’ve read lately. It all takes place in the K Apartments for Ladies, where several different crimes and conspiracies get all tangled up in one another.

If any of you out there have any ideas about similar books, please let me know in the comments.

Where and When; Or, Set the Stage for Me

A lot of the books I’ve read lately have taken me to places and times that I haven’t visited (physically or reading-wise). The setting was, in many cases, the reason I picked the book up. Visiting so many different places got me to thinking about the delicate balance authors have to make when it comes to describing where and when the story takes place. On the one hand, they need to provide enough detail for the reader to finish the job of creating the scene in their head. But they can’t go overboard without losing me in extraneous words. Setting has to be balanced with character development and plot.

Some of the things that I love in well described books go beyond visual detail. I want authors to engage all of my senses.

Scent. Smell is tricky. Most descriptions of scent that I’ve read reference well-known objects: pine, lemon, wet dog. (Blood is almost always described as coppery, for some reason.) If a reader has never smelled a particular scent, the reference is lost on them. When I read about China, for example, there are frequent descriptions of the food. But I’ve only had American Chinese food, which has a completely different smell. I have to guess. When a smell is fully evoked in my head, I get a new dimension of the setting.

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Darren Thompson

Sound. After reading The Round House for the second time, I’ve started to play more attention to the use of silence and sound. In The Round House, there are three kinds of sound: silence; sudden, loud sounds; and peaceful hums. Silences indicate that something is wrong. The loud sounds are warnings. The peaceful hums restore normality after the loud and silent times. I’d never read anything like it. I think I’ve mostly read about sound as additional details in scene-setting. When an author strikes the right balance of detail with sound, I like to pause and just imagine the sounds for a moment before continuing.

Touch. I think this is another lost element of plot, unless a book takes place somewhere very hot or very cold. I’ve been fortunate enough to have traveled around a bit (if only in the United States). I have sense memories to call upon when I read about humid places (Wisconsin and Kansas in the summer); hot, dry places (New Mexico and southern Utah); windy places (taking the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle). As with scent, if a reader doesn’t have those sense memories, a reader has to guess again.

Taste. This one is hard. I don’t know how food writers do it. Writers can evoke taste with simple references: this tasted like cinnamon and that tasted like dirt. But how does one really describe what a meatball in marinara sauce tastes like on the tongue? Or how fresh, grilled pineapple is sweet, bitter, and tart all at the same time? I love reading books about food because, when they’re done well, it’s like I have at place at the table along with the characters.

Here’s wishing you all well-described settings in your future reading! Pause every now and then during a book to fully imagine the scenes authors have created for you. Let them do their magic.

This is Your Brain on Literary Criticism; Or, Back in the English Major Saddle Again

This spring, I am once again assisting with an upper division English course. This time we’re tackling The Round House, by my new book love Louise Erdrich, and I know zip about Native American literature. So, for the first time in a long time, I had homework. Yesterday, I spent hours essentially binge reading literary criticism about Louise Erdrich’s work, Native American storytelling, and the concept of survivance. It felt good. Really good.

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Emil Rau

I’ve probably said it before on this blog (I know I have in conversations with people), but I miss studying literature. Reading books to review them scratches that itch somewhat, but it’s not a perfect replacement for discussing literature with people who’ve studied it. When I was reading articles yesterday, I felt like there were parts of my brain coming back on line. I know that after I finished those articles and went back to The Round House, I was seeing things in that I missed when I read it for fun.

When I read for fun or to review a book, I focus on character, plot, style, and setting. These elements are what attract readers and I need to pay attention to them so I can tempt them into checking out books from my library. But when I read as a literature scholar, I look beyond those things to puzzle out the subtext and how the book achieves its effects. It takes a bit of training to learn how to do that, to learn how to really talk about books. I know some English majors lament this type of reading. Being critically aware makes it hard to escape into a story the way we want to when we read for fun. But reading like an English major can reveal the magic of how story works on us and what it can teach us about the world.

I know literary criticism glow will fade—at least until I get my next batch of homework—but it makes me feel brilliant while it lasts.

A Curious Case of Shelf Envy

A few days ago, Thomas Otto of Hogglestock posted that his “Century of Books” challenge had lead to a massive book reorganization. Something about his project made me jealous. I didn’t want to take up the challenge; that wasn’t it. Then, the next day, I was meeting with a colleague at her house to talk about a class I’d be assisting with. She got up to look for a book but couldn’t find it. Her books were sort of in order by category, but there were too many places this particular book might have been and we couldn’t spot it. When I suggested that she reshelve the books in a different order, it hit me: I was jealous of people who had the opportunity to organize a library. It’s weird, I know, but there it is.

My home library is in alphabetical order. The last time it was organized was three years ago, when I moved into my house.

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Gratuitous home library picture. Shelves A – K.

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Another gratuitous picture of my library. Shelves K – Z.

I used to keep my books in order alphabetically by genre. I kept the literary fiction, non fiction, and classic titles out in the front rooms of my apartment. The weird stuff, fantasy, comics, and science fiction were in the bedroom. Once I had a room big enough for all my books, I went straight alphabetical. Not only do I enjoy the funny juxtapositions of all the genres, it makes things a hell of a lot easier to find.

Just because I can’t think of a reason to reorganize, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the urge. Maybe it’s because I’m a librarian. I have been scratching this itch by shelf reading here and there at work. Perhaps it’s more what reorganizing means. It means an opportunity to take each and every book off the shelf and think about where it belongs. Is a book a mystery or historical fiction? Do I have enough thriller-ish books that they need their own section? Etc. etc. I love thinking about those kinds of questions.

I suspect that, most of all, my jealousy is really about the opportunity to take all my books off the shelf and remembering what it was like to buy them and read them. Touching them again will tempt me into re-reading them. For the books I haven’t gotten to yet (someday I will read East of Eden, I swear), it means bumping them up the to-read list. And, honestly, who doesn’t love just sitting in a giant pile of books, reading the blurbs on the backs or book jackets?

God, I’m a nerd.

A Reader Resolves?

6caf63b30c1360be1e4faf93e3f8dc92For the last few years, I’ve set myself two or three reading-related resolutions for the new year. It’s not usually a challenge to think up things I want to try. This year, however, I find that I am perfectly content with my reading life.

It’s a strange feeling, being content with my reading. I attribute it to all the book reviewing I’ve been doing in the last few years. Because so many different things catch my fancy on NetGalley and Edelweiss, I bounce around from genre to genre so much that I rarely end up in a rut. Meanwhile, I still have time to check out the odd book from the library and read the latest books by my favorite authors.

I’ve had a very good reading year and hope for the same in 2018.

Books that Weirdly Remind Me of Where I Grew Up

Weirdly enough for a navy brat, I mostly grew up in Idaho. Idaho is mostly know for potatoes and being extremely rural. I remember hot, dry summers and cold, dry winters and landscapes that range from alpine desert to wild woods. To this day, mountains, sagebrush, and miles of uninhabited space feel like home.

Because there are so few Idaho writers (Vardis Fisher is probably the best known), it’s rare to see it as a setting in fiction. Instead, I tend to catch surprising glimpses of home in books set all over the place. When I find a book that feels like home, it feels special and the book tends to burrow its way into my heart.

Preparation for the Next Lifeby Atticus Lish

This book features a character from western China, Zou Lei, who left the dusty wide open spaces to try and make a new life in America. Her descriptions of China remind me of summers in Idaho when it’s been months since it rained; her character reminds me of the people who leave the state to find opportunities their parents never had.

Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This book is so good I’ve been a little obsessed with it since I read it this summer. As I read it, Joe Coutts’ description of the reservation where he lives reminded me strongly of the reservation just north of my hometown. I could see Joe’s reservation so clearly in my mind that it was cinematic. Also, the way Joe mocks and loves his home is a lot like the way I make fun of Idaho but don’t like it when non-Idahoans do.

Mothers, Tell Your Daughtersby Bonnie Jo Campbell

I don’t know why, but I imagined a lot of the stories in this collection in Idaho or somewhere a lot like it. The settings are rural and a lot of the characters seem like they have few opportunities to break out of their isolation or dependence on others. There’s a lot of hard won female wisdom in this book that also makes me think of the very tough women I met in Idaho.

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Winter in Bannock County, Idaho

I Think I Sprained My Eyes; Or, Book Marathoning Might Not Be For Me

As soon as my parents left after pie last Thursday, I hit the books. I only stopped reading to sleep and reheat Thanksgiving leftovers. What I learned was that I was not made for book marathons.

8277e978adaf7bcc37ce5f42b6e529d6I survived until about Sunday afternoon when the symptoms hit:

  1. Brain buzz. I jumped from fantasy to contemporary Greece, then India, over to early nineteenth century Ireland, then to Tasmania and off to WWII-era Thailand, and ended up in war torn Ukraine before the battle of Stalingrad. Seriously, I felt book-lagged. Jumping genres didn’t help either.
  2. Eye strain. Oooh, my eyes hurt all through Monday.
  3. Bad TV cravings. By Sunday I was tempted to burn through more episodes of Chopped instead of reading, but I powered through and finished two books that day.

At least I didn’t get hand cramp from holding up books and my iPad for hours on end. The book curls are paying off.

I’m a little sad about this, to be honest. Every few months, when Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon rolls around, I see the bookish folk on my Twitter feed sharing updates with pages read, cups of tea consumed, and snacks eaten with one hand while the other holds books. I don’t have the stamina to go 24 hours. Six, seven hours in a row is all I can manage.

Is there a personal book trainer out there?