I’ve heard from listeners whose reading tastes have varied wildly during quarantine, surprising even themselves. A few of my friends who normally love fiction are fully absorbed in nonfiction, some have turned from their favorite thrillers all the way to lighthearted romance, and others keep on keeping on with their well-loved genres. No matter what they’re reading, the most common phrase I hear is “page-turning.” We want books that keep us occupied, focused, and entranced. A page-turning read can mean something different to every reader, but today’s guest is looking for brain candy.
That’s Elizabeth Cooper’s delightful term for books that are FUN, with a killer premise, pages that practically turn themselves, and totally satisfying endings. Elizabeth’s past as a reader holds some surprising twists and turns itself — and just wait until you hear about how she’s been choosing her next read, because it is definitely a WSIRN first.
My job today is to recommend 3 books that will provide the brain candy reading experience Elizabeth is looking for.
Let’s get to it!
ANNE: You know that little like gumball machine thing that pops up the lotto ball numbers? That’s how I’m picturing your books being chosen.
ELIZABETH: If my husband knows how to build one of those, I would love it. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 244. Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Today I’m chatting with reader Elizabeth Cooper about brain candy. That’s Elizabeth’s delightful term for books that are simply a good time. Killer premise, pages that practically turn themselves, and totally satisfying endings. Elizabeth’s past as a reader holds some surprising twists and turns itself — and just wait until you hear about how she’s been choosing her next read, because it is definitely a What Should I Read Next first.
My job today is to recommend 3 books that will provide the full body reading experience Elizabeth is looking for. And I gotta tell you, this book added plenty of books to my TBR as well, not for the first time. Alright, are you ready for some bookish brain candy? Let’s get to it!
Elizabeth, welcome to the show.
ELIZABETH: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
ANNE: I’m so excited to talk books with you, and not just books but your experience writing books over the years. I have to tell you here at What Should I Read Next headquarters, when your submission came in, we [LAUGHS] … it got our attention. Can I read it to you ‘cause you might not remember.
ELIZABETH: Oh, yes, please.
ANNE: Okay, so this is just a selective portion. You said that you spent a decade writing erotic romance novels before your daughter was born, and then once she came along, “my idea of a hot night became sleeping through it without having anyone touch me, and there went my romance novelist career.”
ELIZABETH: [LAUGHS] Yup. That’s accurate.
ANNE: So knowing that you’re someone who has a lot of experience with lots of different aspects of books, I’d love to hear a little about your reading life.
ELIZABETH: My reading life is super eclectic. So I have a degree in English literature, and when I was in school, of course I had to read all the books. I had to read all the classics. I’m Canadian, so I had to read a great deal of Canadian literature. And so when I got out of university, I swore that I would never read a classic again. I just made myself promise that was not going to be a part of my reading life going forward.
I rebelled by going to the exact opposite direction and I bought every Harlequin I could get my hands on. And that’s where I basically started after I got out of university. I read all the romance novels and then I read all the fantasy novels and all the science fiction novels. And it was just the more brain candy, the better. It was, like, I was making up for long loss time.
ANNE: Well that’s so interesting. First of all, I am not an English major. People just assume that I am, but a couple of older friends warned me. They said hey, you love to read. Maybe don’t ruin it. [LAUGHS] So sometimes I think, like, oh, how many more books would I have read and studied if I did major in the subject in college, but I didn’t and that’s why and I feel validated in my choice. But also I’m so sad … I mean, do you ever feel a loss when feeling so burned out on the classics after college? Or do you really feel like no, it’s just balancing out and it’s all good.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I never feel a loss. [ANNE LAUGHS] I just feel super confident in my decision to move forward and just read whatever I want to read, whatever feels good to me. So these days my reading life is so eclectic. I read a lot of fantasy, science fiction. I don’t read romance anymore, which is interesting and we can get into that if you’d like, but I read a lot of nonfiction. I read self-help. I read widely. I read literary fiction. Just ... I don’t go into classics.
ANNE: When you were reading the classics in college, did you ever see yourself writing those books one day? Writing any books one day?
ELIZABETH: It’s so interesting that you ask that because the beginning of my novelist career was actually in university and I was taking a children’s literature class. Part of our assignment was to write a children’s story, and I had never really written fiction before. I wrote a lot of essays being in school, but I didn’t write fiction.
And I fell in love with the act of writing fiction. I can actually remember the story that I wrote. It was about a little girl that got lost in a fairy garden and ate a pear and had to stay there, which of course wasn’t unique by any stretch of the imagination. But I just loved the process of doing it so much that I thought, wow, I could do more of this.
ANNE: What was it about it?
ELIZABETH: I think it was just giving myself permission to get as creative and as wild as I wanted to, which is why even when I started writing erotic romance, I wrote paranormal subgenres most of the time. So I just wanted to get out of the world that I lived in, and I still want that from my reading life as well, but my writing life was very much about escapism.
ANNE: Now you said that you have a slough of hobbies, but reading has always been one of your greatest passions. Practically, what does that look like in your reading life over the years?
ELIZABETH: It was always the thing I went back to in times of stress. I would grab a book whenever the world just got to be too much, and as far as other hobbies went, I paint. I draw. I craft. But there’s just something about reading, and again I think I just go back to that need to escape that is fabulous for me.
Now having said that, when I had my daughter, I had really bad postpartum depression and I couldn’t read for about a year. And when I say I couldn’t read, I would open a book and I would reread the same paragraph for 15 minutes without being able to remember a thing I had just read. And it was so frustrating. And I remember thinking will I ever be able to go back to reading? And it was such a loss for me that I couldn’t do it, but I think I just needed to give both my brain and my body some time to heal, and then when I stopped forcing it, eventually it came back.
ANNE: Oh, I’m glad to hear that. And also I’m so sorry. And how frustrating it must have been.
ELIZABETH: Yes. And the more frustrated I got, the more I tried to force it, and of course that never works.
ANNE: Elizabeth, how did you discover the genres that you enjoy? The ones that you keep coming back to again and again?
ELIZABETH: Fantasy is a big one for me, and I discovered that thanks to my husband. My husband and I have been married for 21 years and I was 18 when we got married. So I was in university. And I remember reading all these classics and all these heavy tomes and just being exhausted, and my husband handed me a Dragonlance novel. And I thought what is this? And he tried to explain Dungeons & Dragons to me ‘cause he was really into it, and I just thought that’s crazy, but okay.
I remember sitting on the couch and I devoured this little Dragonlance novel in a couple of hours. I came out of it as though I had just gone to a different world, and I thought oh my God, I had no idea this kind of thing existed. It was like a whole wide world of fantasy had opened up for me. So that’s how I got into fantasy. And then I stretched from there into science fiction. I had always liked both fantasy and science fiction movies and TV shows, but I hadn’t read it.
Another genre I keep going back to is nonfiction, particularly self help but I also just really interesting bits of pieces about the world. I recently read The Body by Bill Bryson, and I loved it. It’s just so fascinating. I couldn’t put it down.
So those are the genres I keep going back to again and again and again. That’s not to say I don’t read other things because I certainly do. If I want a comfort read, that’s where I go. And also psychological thrillers. Love those too. I think there’s just something about brain candy.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Well that’s not everyone’s idea of candy, though.
ELIZABETH: That is a very good point.
ANNE: So with thriller has that puzzle element to it, but is that what makes it so enjoyable for you? Do you even know? These are often not things we articulate. We just know as readers like ugh, we find those books really satisfying and really fun. But oftentimes we’re not asked why.
ELIZABETH: No, and I love so much that you’re asking this because it is making me think about it and it’s not the puzzle aspect. I don’t even like puzzles, so it’s definitely [ANNE LAUGHS] not the puzzle aspect. I want to say again it’s about being in an entirely different world. When I read, I put myself in the main character’s shoes, and I just love feeling that thrill of fear but in a controlled environment. I imagine it’s the same reason why people like to watch horror movies which I don’t, but I would imagine that if I was somebody who liked horror movies that’s why I liked it because it gives me that illusion of control while still getting to experience something that is entirely out of my realm of knowledge and possibility.
ANNE: Okay. So we’re going to be looking for books that take you places today.
ANNE: Elizabeth, I’m ready to hear about your books. Are you ready to jump in?
ELIZABETH: I am so ready. Let’s do it.
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ANNE: Well you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next.
ANNE: All right, Elizabeth. What’s book number one?
ELIZABETH: Book number one is Kings of the Wild by Nicholas Eames. This is a fantasy novel. It’s the first in a series, and it revolves around a group of over the hill mercenaries. They were once part of the most renowned band of warriors in their realm, and now they’re old, drunk, or all of the above. [BOTH LAUGH] But - but when one of the band members’ daughter is in trouble, she gets kidnapped, the rest of them have to rally to rescue her. And then chaos and adventure ensues from there.
This book reminded me of all the reasons why I love fantasy. It’s campaign Dungeons & Dragons at its very best and it brought back every memory I have of falling in love with Dragonlance and World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings. I adore the characters. Every single one of the guys in the band is so well crafted and so perfectly drawn. Throw in a few secondary characters who are just as magical, and I just couldn’t put this book down.
One of my favorite aspects of this was that the groups of warriors were actually treated like famous rock stars are in our society. So imagine if say The Rolling Stones had been monster hunters instead of rock ’n’ roll stars, but their fans were still diehard fans and knew everything about them. I just loved that. That was so much fun.
ANNE: I haven’t read this one, so I talked to a few readers I know who love sci-fi. I read a few reviews, and I just want to read you this little snippet from a Kirkus review. “Eames has cranked the thrills of epic fantasy up to eleven with gleeful disregard for restraint or good sense. The world is rich and exciting; the plot is emotionally rewarding, original, and hilarious, and boasts a satisfying conclusion while leaving room for future books. He clearly set out to write something fun to read and he has succeeded spectacularly.”
ELIZABETH: That’s perfect.
ANNE: I mean I want to read that right now based on everything you said.
ELIZABETH: I honestly think you would love it.
ANNE: Did he go on to write follow ups to this one?
ELIZABETH: Yes. I have book number two on my shelf, and I’m afraid to read it because [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t want to ruin the experience for myself. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well that does sound like so much fun. Well, and I noticed this is a book that is constantly described by readers who love it as being fun to read, and I don’t feel like it’s a coincidence that you chose it as one of your favorites of the past two years. Am I wrong that that’s something that you really value as a reader right now?
ELIZABETH: You’re absolutely right. It was really fun to read and I just love that element of reading, just having fun with it.
ANNE: Elizabeth, what did you choose for book two?
ELIZABETH: Book number two is Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn. Now I’m not typically a huge fan of historical fiction, but I adore ancient history, so give me books that’s set in Ancient Egypt or Rome and I’m all in. This particular book centers around Thea, who starts out as a slave for a spoiled, cruel mistress named Lepida.
Lepida is very jealous of Thea and she makes her life miserable, especially once Thea catches the eye of the most famous gladiator around, which is a man that Lepida wants for herself. Lepida casts Thea out of Rome, but Thea is very resourceful and she ends up making herself as a singer and as a courtesan for Rome’s elite. She catches the eye of the emperor and she ends up having much more power in Rome than her former mistress does, which sets these two women on a conclusion course right up until the end of the story.
And I feel madly in love with this book. It’s so clear to me that Kate Quinn did an incredible amount of research. There’s something about the scenarios, the characters, the environment, they all rang so authentic and true. I was so deeply enthralled while reading, I mean, I flew through this book in a couple of days and I’m typically not a binge reader.
What’s really interesting for me about this book in particular is that when I read I felt like I was living within the pages. Like it was me falling in love and me in the arena smelling blood and terror and even as I turned the last page, I still felt like I was there. Like I could hear the screams of the audience in my ears and I could taste figs and I could feel silk on my skin. It was just this whole total body experience, like isn’t that reading at its best? I don’t know. It is for me.
ANNE: That sounds like an incredible reading experience. And I think it’s interesting that you said that you’re not usually a binge reader. What kind of reader are you usually?
ELIZABETH: I would say I’m slow and steady. I read between 30-50 pages every night before I go to bed, so it takes me a little while to get through a book, depending on how long the book is. And I also never, ever read two books in a series back to back. Like I need something else in between.
ANNE: My husband and I were just discussing series rhythms yesterday for a bonus episode that’s going up on our patreon. So if you don’t read them back to back, do you have a preferred rhythm? How do you tackle a series? I say tackle like there’s this mountain you need to climb and not this pool that you get to dive into, but how do you approach a series? How’s that?
ELIZABETH: Okay. Here’s the other really interesting thing about me. I choose all my books randomly. I never, ever walk into my library or bookstore or wherever and pick out a book and bring it home and read it. I pick up a book. I add it to my Goodreads list. And then when it’s time to read something new, I go to my trusty randomizer and I plug in a number and whatever that number pops up with is what I end up reading. And so this means that I might end up taking years in between reading the next book in a series.
ANNE: Elizabeth, this is a new strategy to me. I like it. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] How did you first ... how did this even occur to you to do? I mean I understand that a randomizer is not a novel idea, but it is an unusual approach to your reading life. How did it come to you?
ELIZABETH: I think I just started building out my TBR list, and my TBR list is pretty massive. So I started having trouble picking books. And I thought you know what? I’m just going to take the decision making off the table all together. Now I will say that the only way this works is if the only books on your TBR are books that you are excited to read. Because every time a number comes up, I feel that thrill of ooh, I get to read this! That’s fantastic. If I didn’t have that, then I would feel like I was being forced to read something and it would feel like I was back in school.
ANNE: Have you ever had a number come up and realize oh, I didn’t actually want to read that book?
ELIZABETH: On occasion this happens and I will just … I won’t even put it back on the shelf. I will just take the book out of my house and take it off my TBR all together ...
ELIZABETH: Because I will know that this isn’t something I’m ever going to be excited reading.
ANNE: How many books are on your TBR?
ELIZABETH: 3000 physical books, and a lot more digital books.
ANNE: So when you enter your fields into the randomizer, it’s 0 through how many?
ELIZABETH: Three thou … Well, no, it’s zero through 4500 right now. My husband is a computer programmer and he actually built me an app to keep track of all of my books.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Oh, I love it.
ELIZABETH: I know. And it has a randomizer feature built in, so all I actually have to do is push a magic button and a book pops up on my screen and I just go and grab it.
ANNE: Oh, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve been reading lately. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] Okay, tell me about book three.
ELIZABETH: Okay. Book three is The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow and this was a Modern Mrs. Darcy book club pick which was the only reason why I picked it up. And I did so with some trepidation because I don’t really read young adult, and while this book isn’t actually categorized as young adult, I think it’s historical fantasy, the teenage protagonist gave me pause.
So this book is about January Scaller. She’s a ward to a wealthy man and has a tumultuous relationship with her own father who’s often gone on long expeditions. She’s quite different from those around her, both physically and in terms of her personality. She’s adventurous and wild and curious and she loves to read. So one day she finds a strange book and it’s a book that tells a tale that seems at once familiar and impossible, and it leads her on a journey of self discovery unlike really anything I’ve ever read before.
And honestly I can’t remember another time I sobbed so much while reading a book or became so interested in the characters and their circumstances. Actually now that I think of it, it may have been while I was reading Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. I remember being just as swept away and desperate to read more while reading that.
But while I was reading The Ten Thousand Doors of January, I was on a cruise and I remember just being out on the balcony completely ignoring my husband and my daughter because I just couldn’t stop reading this book. I loved everything about it. I loved January, her mom and her dad, the secondary characters. I loved the writing. It’s so lyrical and heart wrenchingly beautiful, but not in a showy way which I really appreciate. January’s voice is so distinct and captivating. It’s - it’s really the voice of a true scholar I thought, and I just really enjoyed rooting for her and for her parents and just following her on the journey that she takes. It was, again, so much fun, but with that emotional punch that I wasn’t expecting.
ANNE: I’m so glad you enjoyed it. That sounds like an incredible reading experience, and I’m so glad that you picked it up despite your hesitance to read about a teenage protagonist.
ELIZABETH: And this is why I’m part of the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book club because I get to read things I wouldn’t otherwise and it’s just so much fun.
ANNE: I’m so glad to hear that. And she was so fun to talk to, too.
ANNE: Okay. I’m really excited now that we’re indulging our Alix Harrow fan club moment, she has a new one coming out this fall called The Once and Future Witches and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.
ELIZABETH: I am so excited to hear that. You just made my day.
ANNE: Now, Elizabeth, I’d love to hear what you’re reading now and also I’m desperate to know were these randomizer produced titles?
ELIZABETH: Of course they were. Absolutely they were. [BOTH LAUGH] What I just recently finished is Sphere by Michael Crichton, and this book has been sitting on my shelf for 20 years and the randomizer finally served it up for me, so I was super excited. It was published in 1989. It was also made into a movie with Dustin Hoffman and Samuel L. Jackson and Sharon Stone, which I haven’t seen yet but I’m looking forward to.
It’s about a group of scientists who discover a spaceship at the bottom of the ocean, and the weird part is that all the labels are in English but the ship is at least 300 years old. Of course it’s Michael Crichton, so it holds this alien intelligence that could kill us all. I enjoyed it.
ANNE: You know, I read a lot of writing books and Michael Crichton gets referenced a lot in writing books. It’s interesting to me how so many people who do writing or do story or plotting or critique for a living say often about Michael Crichton, nobody can do a premise like Michael Crichton. Just over and over and over again, his premises are amazing.
ELIZABETH: There is something really incredible about his premises and sometimes the books fall apart at about the halfway mark. [BOTH LAUGH] You know, in this particular one, like the scientific explanation didn’t quite hold together and the technology didn’t quite, you know, didn’t quite make sense, but his premise was so good that I just had to keep reading because I just had to know what happens.
ANNE: The first Michael Crichton book I read was The Andromeda Strain, and I read it when I was about 15 or 16. It blew my mind. I loved it so much. I still think about it sometimes, specifically because I mean I don’t remember the details of the plot or how it ended, but I remember that the people involved in some kind of close corridors situation drank this smoothie basically every day that had everything they needed, all their calories and nutrients, and sometimes when I’m traveling I think, man, I wish I had one of those Andromeda Strain smoothies. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] That would be so easy right now.
But I’m curious to go back and read it to see what, you know, my current self thinks about my 15-year-old taste, but what else has the randomizer served up lately? I’m curious to hear what a monthly mix of books might look like for you.
ELIZABETH: Oh, absolutely. Actually let me just pull it up here, and so, right now, so after Sphere I went straight to Untamed by Glennon Doyle, which again, I’m just loving. The one before that was Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis. Before that I read Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay, which I think is book three is the Dexter series, so you know, I’m getting quite far into this series [LAUGHS] given how many books I have on my TBR. I’m always surprised when a Dexter book pops up. I’ve also read Force of Nature by Jane Harper, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane. Yeah, those were my recent ones for the last couple months.
ANNE: And are hitting those genres that you said you enjoyed, which I imagine is no coincidence because that’s everything there, right?
ELIZABETH: Yes, exactly. So pretty much everything on my TBR is in my happy place.
ANNE: Elizabeth, is there anything you want to be different in your reading life?
ELIZABETH: You know, we talked so much about my randomizer method but I would really love to be more intentional with the way that I chose my books. I’m finding that even though I have a lot of books on my TBR that are in the genres that I enjoy, I also get a lot of books and I start a lot of books that don’t really do it for me. I would love to maybe change those percentages a little bit. I now find that about 50% of the books that I grab just … they’re okay, but they’re not amazing. They don’t give me that reading experience I’m looking for. And I’m thinking that if I could be a little bit more intentional with what I choose, then chances are good that I will have that experience more often.
ANNE: Have you considered how you might be more intentional about what that might look like for you?
ELIZABETH: So I started by joining the book club, and that’s one way that I’ve been able to filter books and choose books that aren’t randomizer picked. [LAUGHS] So just looking at suggestions from people I trust seems to be a really good way for me to find a good read, or something I will enjoy. And I’m also thinking about just going back to those authors I love and just reading more in their backlist which is something I don’t do very often because again I have so many books on my TBR. And I’m thinking that I would really like to dive deep into some of these authors’ backlists, and see what comes of that.
ANNE: When you think about scrapping your TBR or maybe just culling it, does that feel exciting? Or anything but?
ELIZABETH: It actually feels super exciting. I’m finding that the older I get, and I turn 40 this year, the older I get the more I want to embrace a minimalist lifestyle. But I have these 3,000 books and that doesn’t quite go with a minimalist lifestyle, so I would really like to be able to go through and just really prune and tame that beast in my library.
ANNE: How did you end up with 3,000 books? That’s a lot of books and it’s not something that happens by accident.
ELIZABETH: [LAUGHS] It’s not, is it? No. When I was writing a lot of them I considered research, so I bought a ton of romance novels. I bought a ton of Harlequins, in particular, I would go to eBay and I would find lots of Harlequins and I would just buy them, boxes at a time. And then I would just go into used bookstores and library sales, and my library has this amazing sale that happens once a month. You can buy, I think it’s a paperback, for 25 cents, so I would walk out of there with, I don’t know, 40, 50 books at a time because come on, who can pass up a bargain, right?
ANNE: I mean those library sales are magical but also serious trouble.
ELIZABETH: [LAUGHS] Yes.
ANNE: Okay, so you’ve contemplated maybe clearing the shelves a little bit?
ELIZABETH: Absolutely. I would really like to get down. I mean, in my ideal world, I would like to have a physical TBR that’s under a hundred books. I think that might be stretching it a bit, but that - that’s my goal. I would love to get there.
ANNE: That sounds like plenty of books. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] Abstractly …
ANNE: I was just thinking how do you get to a hundred and thought well that sounds like a reasonable amount, but I’m looking at a post it note of the books that … Well it started as the five books I want to read in the next couple of weeks, but then I kept adding to it as I kept realizing oh, wait, actually I have more priority titles or I’ll learn about a new book and I want to read it immediately. Just on this one little post it note, which began as books I want to read in the next two weeks, I think I have like 22 books on it. Which is 22% of the way to your 100 titles … And oh, how did you arrive at the 100 number?
ELIZABETH: It was just this number that feels [LAUGHS] it feels extreme. It feels extremely small. I have a room full of books, so thinking about culling that down to one bookshelf. I’d loved to make that happen. Especially because I know that a lot of the books that are on there are not really part of these genres that I really love.
ANNE: Now this is going to sound like a motivational speaker kind of question, and I don’t mean it like that, but you haven’t done it yet. What are the big things holding you back, aside from the sheer amount of labor it actually would take to move that many books? I mean, I’m a reader. I have a lot of books. It doesn’t sound completely overwhelming to me and yet when I start to visualize, I know about how many books are on each shelf in my own library and in my office, and I need a room several times that large to hold 3,000. That’s … you know that’s a lot of books.
ANNE: So there’s many reasons not to move forward. What are the big ones for you?
ELIZABETH: I think I have this fear of running out of reading material.
ELIZABETH: I think oh no, what if I somehow get through all hundred books and then I won’t have anything to read? And so having that many books makes me feel like I will always have something to read. I have my own library and my own house, which by the way, has come in very handy while the libraries have been closed.
ANNE: You’re not going to run out of reading material.
ANNE: Maybe not for several lifetimes.
ELIZABETH: No, not for several lifetimes for sure. And I think that’s part of it. The other part of course is just the amount of time commitment, and then I think what am I going to do with all these books? Like I will physically have to take them somewhere. I will have physically have to donate them or my daughter’s school has a sale, a book sale every fall, so I mean I could just pile them up and save them for the book sale. They’d be thrilled to have them, I’m sure.
ANNE: They could just host it at your house.
ELIZABETH: [LAUGHS] They could!
ANNE: Have you thought about taking any intermediate steps?
ELIZABETH: Yes. And I’ve actually started doing this, so I’ve culled my bookshelves and I’ve taken all the romances novels, all the Harlequins that I don’t read anymore, and I've just separated those. And I know that’s a very easy step for me. Those are the first ones that can go, and that will be easy enough to do. And from there, I will probably be left with somewhere close to 1500 maybe. Which still sounds like a lot, but it will be-
ANNE: No, but that’s huge. That’s 50%.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, it’s half of my collection. I can start there.
ANNE: Okay. High fives.
ELIZABETH: High fives all around.
ANNE: I mean obviously. There’s nothing intrinsically good or bad about adding or removing books, but if this is what you want, like, well done.
ELIZABETH: Yes, and ...
ELIZABETH: You bring up a good point about adding books because I do take out a few books and I add twice as many. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Oh, that’s relatable. Well now I feel really bad because you know what we’re going to do next. We’re going to recommend books for your reading list, Elizabeth. Should we not do this?
ELIZABETH: Please, please, let’s do this. [ANNE LAUGHS]
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ANNE: Okay. Well I’m curious to hear what you say about this because the first book that occurred to me as you’re talking about how you want reading to be fun and just an enjoyable experience and to take you into somebody else’s problems, in a controlled kind of way, I thought about a fairly new romance novel and the reason is that so many readers have said I just read this whole thing with a giant smile on my face. It just made me so happy. I mean, like really hard stuff happens in this book, but there’s so much funny, witty banter where you think ugh, I want to be best friends with these people. That would be so great. But you don’t read romance anymore, and I would love to hear a little more about that.
ELIZABETH: So remember how I said that when I was in university and I came out and I said I’m never doing that again because I overdosed on it? I had the exact same experience when I was writing romance. When I was writing romance, I only read romance. I considered it research for my writing. I wanted to know what was going on in the industry, who was getting published, what kinds of themes kept coming up. I read a lot of romance. So once I decided that I was no longer going to be writing romance, I also made the decision to read other things. I felt like I had gotten enough of that and I wanted to move on to something else.
ANNE: That makes sense. So most readers parcel out a genre over the course of many years or even a lifetime, but you got yours in a concentrated decade.
ELIZABETH: Yes. Exactly.
ANNE: Elizabeth, how long has it been since you closed the metaphorical book on your romance career?
ELIZABETH: It’s been six and a half years, which is exactly how old my daughter is. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Readers, I think it’s worth mentioning here that Elizabeth wrote under a pen name as many authors do for privacy reasons. So if you go Googling Elizabeth Cooper novels, that’s not going to get you anywhere. That is why, and we ask that you respect that.
So we are going to skip the romance novel in that place ‘cause that’s a good reason. Also I like the pattern we’re seeing unfold here. You do the thing, you do it well, it’s done, and you move on.
ELIZABETH: Oh, it’s so interesting that you say that because I can probably see that in my life even outside of reading quite a few times.
ANNE: True to character. But you’re not done with fantasy, right?
ELIZABETH: No, definitely not.
ANNE: Okay, ‘cause I got an interesting urban fantasy that I think, I’m not sure whether I should be hopeful that you’ve heard of it and it’s in that randomizer somewhere or maybe you’ll give it a special spot and pull it out or maybe you’ll just be really excited in 2027 when it pops up as its turn to read, [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] but the book I’m thinking of is Trail of Lighting by Rebecca Roanhorse. Do you know this one? This series?
ANNE: I don’t know if it’s good for you or not, but I’m happy that this is a new one to you since you do love all the fantasy and sci-fi. Sometimes this book gets categorized as cli-fi, climate dystopian, end of the world, fantastical fiction, but we’ll get to that in a second. This is the first book in a trilogy. It’s incomplete. Book two is out … Book three is … I think she’s been posting on twitter that she’s on deadline right now, so leave her alone, she’s not going to respond ‘cause she’s gotta finish and turn this thing in.
But the trilogy is called The Sixth World trilogy. The origin of that Sixth World idea is traditional Navajo stories. Roanhorse is herself Ohkay Owingeh, she lived for several years in the Navajo Nation, she is married to a Navajo man and their child is Navajo. This is an Indigenous #OwnVoices story. And she says that similar to other Indigenous worldviews, they believe that there've been multiple iterations of the world we’re living in now. So truly in contemporary time, we’re living in the Fifth World, or she says Fourth, it’s regional which one you believe, but it’s not the Sixth.
So what she says she was inspired to think what if this world ended in this cataclysmic, climate event. It’d be over and it’d be time for the Sixth world, so that’s where the series name comes from. And that apocalyptic climate change here is an event that in the book they call The Big Water. It’s the epic flood that basically wipes out everything and as the story unfolds, you learn more about what happened and how it changed life as this community knew it. That’s the backdrop.
What I like about this story for you is, it’s really interesting. It takes you into a totally different world, and it was really important to Roanhorse that you feel completely immersed in and experience the world, so the writing is really evocative. You were talking about the Kate Quinn book, how you could taste the fig and feel the silk on your skin. Roanhorse is so good at writing those descriptions that make you feel like you’re right there in the story. And also from the get go, when you start reading the first paragraph, I just felt like boom, here we are. We’re in it. Like I’m right there with the character.
And you find out right at the beginning, the protagonist, her name is Maggie, she’s … she’s a monster hunter. She has special powers because she’s been trained by a legend, although a legend with whom she has a complicated relationship. So when this young girl goes missing, everybody knows Maggie’s the one you have to ask. It starts in this scene where they, you know, need her because something terrible has happened and she’s, you know, like dropped into the middle of the action. It’s exciting and interesting and you want to know what happens next, and you may be able to read this 30 to 50 pages a night. That’s fine, but I know that many readers including myself just blew through it ‘cause they wanted to see what happens next.
And about that monster hunting, I didn’t realize that so many Navajo stories have this tradition of monster hunting, so she’s drawing from the legends of her people to tell this story. You know, fantasy authors have incredible imaginations and they can come up with these completely new ideas that they pulled out of their back pockets or more like their powerful imaginations. But I thought it was so interesting that her cosmology here does feel so thoroughly fleshed out, I just wondered, is that because she’s drawing on these rich traditions that have been around for forever?
So there’s monster hunting. But also she’s working through a whole bunch of personal junk with her mentor and with other people. She’s lost a lot of people in really painful ways. She meets someone that becomes her partner as they go monster hunting, but he’s got his own issues and I think you might enjoy it. How does this sound to you?
ELIZABETH: It sounds fantastic.
ANNE: Now I don’t see you reading the books just because they have like awards smacked onto them, but she’s got them. She won the Nebula. Actually, she was the first Indigenous American to do so. She was a finalist for a Hugo. Readers are on edge to find out when her next book will be published, that one she’s about to turn in. But if you enjoy this, there is already one more and another one on the way so that you can put them into your series. I’m picturing, you know that little like gumball machine that pops up the lotto ball numbers? That’s how I’m picturing your books being chosen.
ELIZABETH: I need one of those. If my husband knows how to build one [ANNE LAUGHS] of those instead of an app, I would love it. It’s like one of those claw machines, you know, that the kids love, you can just pull out a book and drop it in.
ANNE: Yes, exactly. Except .. You know the claw though, you have your eye on what you really want.
ELiZABETH: That’s a good point.
ANNE: But maybe subconsciously you do too. [LAUGHS] Okay. So that book is Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. Okay, next up, Kevin Kwan who is beyond famous for his Crazy Rich Asians series has a new book coming out this summer. It’s called Sex and Vanity. I wouldn’t even have to tell you this. You can enjoy the story perfectly well without knowing it or caring or anything, but it’s a retelling of A Room With a View. Right off the bat, how does that strike you?
ANNE: Okay. First of all, I was excited to read the new Kevin Kwan novel, which might be a little bit silly because I read Crazy Rich Asians but I haven’t finished the series. But reading his interview, seeing how he believes he’s gotten so much better with every book, and I thought Crazy Rich Asians was fun. It makes me want to go back and read them, and they are on my physical bookshelves, Elizabeth, so I can do that. Glad they’re still there waiting for me.
But he loves A Room With A View and he said in many ways this book is an homage. It’s been a big influence in his life. He’s always loved Forster, but also the first time he saw the film, the Merchant Ivory version with Maggie Smith as Charlotte and a very, very young Helena Bonham Carter as Lucy, it made a big impression on him. It also reminded him of people he knew in Singapore, particularly an aunt that he was really close to.
So he said that he’s been thinking about writing this book for ten years, or actually maybe very, very much longer in his subconscious and he … It was time to write another book, and this is what he chose to do. And he wanted to be very clear, like this is not Crazy Rich Asians part four, this is something entirely different.
So in this book Lucie Tang Churchill is 19 years old. She is a woman of privilege, of course because it’s a Kevin Kwan novel. She’s half-Chinese. She’s half-WASP, and she goes to Capri to attend her [LAUGHS] also very rich friend Isabel’s wedding. And when she’s there she meets a guy named George, and he’s rich and he’s handsome. He’s a Chinese-Australian surfer and she’s into him and thinks he’s interesting. They hook up.
The 2020 update for George kissing Lucie in a field, like he does in that Merchant Ivory movie, or in the novel, is not what I expected. Drones are involved. But they don’t see each other again after that. For the rest of the time in the over the top wedding in Capri until four years later when their paths cross again in New York City only now she’s engaged to the horrible Cecil, which you know if you’ve read A Room With A View, but again, it is not essential that you do so or know anything about it.
I didn’t know going in that this was A Room With A View retelling and I was reading and going, oh, there’s a Lucy here. And her aunt’s name is Charlotte. Wait a second, and I slowly realized oh that is totally what is happening and I was here for it. He satirizes culture so well, but he’s not mean about it. He wants you to have a really fun reading experience that is the emotion he is after which is why I think this could be a really excellent pick for you.
ELIZABETH: That sounds perfect. I’m going to love this, I’m sure.
ANNE: That is Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan. And again that will be out summer 2020. Okay, so we did sci-fi, cli-fi fantasy novel. We did the popular contemporary novel. How about we round out your list with a thriller?
ELIZABETH: Oh, let’s do it.
ANNE: Okay. I want to do something new, is that okay?
ANNE: Okay. This season there’s a new book by American writer Mindy Mejia, it’s called Strike Me Down. This is not nonfiction. This is a thriller. But you mentioned that you really enjoy nonfiction that illuminates a piece of the world, and this thriller kinda does the same thing because it’s about a forensic account and I imagine that a lot of readers like myself didn’t know that they really wanted to read about the fascinating world of forensic accounting, but accounting never seemed so interesting as it does in this book. I mean, I am here for more accountant thrillers if anybody wants to recommend any. If any writers want to write me some, I will read them.
So, this is about a forensic account named Nora. She’s based in Minneapolis, and she has devoted her life and her career to finding and prosecuting fraud. Sometimes this comes at a great personal cost. She exposed some fraudulent activity in her career that had absolutely devastating consequences, which may be a surprise to a reader, but Nora knows that when you’re stealing money from your company, that’s embezzlement. That’s a lot of what she investigates.
She knows that when people commit fraud, they have to have a motive and they have to have the opportunity to do so. These are the three things she’s looking for as she investigates. She’s approached by the co-owner of a business that she patronizes, that she loves, founded by a husband-wife team; she really admires the woman. It’s called Strike. It’s a kickboxing gym. It’s really expensive. It’s really prestigious. Nora just loves it. She’s come a long way, and the wife in the partnership that founded it, Logan Russo, is basically Nora’s idol.
So when Logan’s husband, co-founder of the business, approaches her and says we need help and you’re the only one who can do it, she can’t help but say yes even though she has several, like, big, blazing warning signs going you should not take that job. But she can’t resist because she loves them, and she wants to do them a favor, and they, like, really stroke her ego by, like, saying it can’t be anybody but you, Nora. And this job needs to be done in a big hurry, so there’s a rush to bring her on board.
What’s happened is Strike is putting on this huge kickboxing event, this huge tournament. It’s a big deal and there’s some exciting things happening for their business and the purse of 20 million dollars has disappeared with one week before the event. And the husband thinks his wife stole it, but he doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know how.
Nora knows she should say no. Like this is a classic thriller line, right you know you shouldn’t do it but you do, and then bad things happen. Like this is how the plot goes. She can’t resist. And so she signs up for the job but as she starts digging in, she can see that something is amiss with this case. It’s not just business. It goes beyond that. This is very personal to Nora and to this couple and she has entered into the middle of something she has no business being in, and it’s pretty fun to read, Elizabeth. How does that sound?
ELIZABETH: That sounds wonderful.
ANNE: Okay. That’s called Strike Me Down. It’s by Mindy Mejia. This definitely has some gruesome scenes. It’s got some poor choices in many aspects of life. If you are a sensitive reader, this may not be right for you, but if you love the thriller genre and you know what you’re getting into, have at it. I think you’ll find it interesting. Also I think you’ll be amazed at how riveting it is to read about accounting in this book.
ELIZABETH: I love it.
ANNE: Okay. Elizabeth, today we talked about Trial of Lighting by Rebecca Roanhorse, Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan, and Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia. Am I allowed to ask which one of these you might read next? Or do we just see which number pops up in the lotto machine?
ELIZABETH: Well while you were talking, I entered all three of them into my randomizer app and it’s already chosen one for me, so [ANNE LAUGHS] I think I will be starting with Strike Me Down which sounds fantastic. I can’t wait to get into the wild, wild world of forensic accounting.
ANNE: Words you never thought you’d say.
ANNE: That’s what good books do. They take you places you’ve never been and never imagine you’d go.
ELIZABETH: I love it.
ANNE: Elisabeth, this has been a joy. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
ELIZABETH: This has been so much fun. Thank you, Anne.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Elizabeth, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/244 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. We found out that many listeners don’t know that we’ve been making transcripts of every episode available for 18 months now. Go to the show notes whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com, find the episode you’re looking for, download the transcript on that episode page. You can find Elizabeth on Instagram @flutterandsprout_elizabeth. We’ll put that in the show notes, too.
Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!
Readers, connect with me on Instagram @AnneBogel, and follow our all-books-all-the-time account @whatshouldireadnext on that same platform. Check out my books, I’d Rather Be Reading: the delights and dilemmas of the reading life, perfect for any book lover, and my latest Don’t Overthink It, which just might be the book you and your reading life need in these wild times.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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♥ Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames
♥ Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
♥ The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow
• The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
• Sphere by Michael Crichton
• Untamed by Glennon Doyle
• Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals by Rachel Hollis
• Dexter in the Dark by Jeff Lindsay
• Force of Nature by Jane Harper
• Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb
• Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane
• Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse
• Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan
• Strike Me Down by Mindy Mejia
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What do YOU think Elizabeth should read next?
Let us know in the comments!