Today’s guest came to me with a specific request for surprising books with unique story structures, new information, and plot twists that will make her say, “what did I just read?” Shelly Akins is a proud Arizonian who is always reading. And when she isn’t reading, she loves attending the Tuscon Festival of Books, a huge literary festival where both book talk and fangirling are welcomed.
We eagerly await the day we can gather for book festivals again, but in the meantime, Shelly finds community in her Book Challenge Group, which is not a traditional book club. Talking books with fellow readers has helped Shelly hone in on her personal reading taste and decide what she wants more of in her reading life. I can’t wait to share three titles to surprise and delight this avid reader!
Let’s get to it!
You can follow Shelly’s reading life on Instagram.
ANNE: There’s a map in the front that shows you the landscape where the book is going to take place.
SHELLY: Oh. I like a book with a map.
ANNE: I suspected you would, Shelly. [SHELLY LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 252.
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.
Readers, the fall reading season always puts me in mind of campus novels and cozy mysteries. But there’s another bookish category on my mind this time of year: my books. In today’s episode, I mention that I wrote a book about personality. That book is Reading People: How Seeing the World Through the Lens of Personality Changes Everything. It came out three years ago in September followed by I’d Rather Be Reading, the next fall. Every September, I get time hop reminders from those release days and book tours. Remember book tours? They were so fun. And while we can’t meet in person right now to celebrate, I still enjoy recognizing these fall book birthdays.
If you haven’t read Reading People or I’d Rather Be Reading, now is the perfect time to cozy up with these short, practical and enjoyable books or to get them as gifts for the personality nerd or bookworm in your life. Find out more about each of my books with links to buy them from your favorite bookseller at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com. That’s whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com.
Today’s guest came to me with a specific request for surprising books with unique story structures, new information and plot twists that will make her say what did I just read? Shelly Atkins is a proud Arizonian who is always reading and when she isn’t reading, she attends the Tucson Festival of Books, a huge literary festival where both book talk and fangirling are welcomed.
We eagerly await the day we can gather for book festivals again, but in the meantime, Shelly finds community in her book challenge group, which is not a traditional book club. Talking books with similar readers has helped Shelly hone in on her personal reading taste and decide what she wants more of in her reading life. Of course we get into that today. Can’t wait to share three titles to surprise and delight an avid reader. Let’s get to it.
Shelly, welcome to the show.
SHELLY: Thanks. I’m super excited.
ANNE: Well I am too. I mean, what’s better than book talk early in the morning? [SHELLY LAUGHS] Shelly, when you filled out your submission at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest you said that you listened to, what, practically every episode?
SHELLY: Almost. I think so, yeah.
ANNE: Okay. And pointed out, we don’t have as many readers from the southwest of the United States as we could, so thank you for representing Arizona today.
SHELLY: I love my state, so I’m excited. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well it’s good to hear people enthusiastic about the literary landscape where they are. I’ve never been to Arizona, but I thought I was going to get to come visit myself this year ‘cause you have some amazing things going on in the literary community there.
SHELLY: We do. We have this huge festival called Tucson Festival of Books every year in March.
ANNE: Okay, whet our appetites for when we can go out into the world again.
SHELLY: It is on the University of Arizona’s campus and thousands of authors come and they take over the whole mall with the big open area, tents and four or five buildings where there’s workshops and author talks and panel discussions. Thousands and thousands of people come to here, people talk. I got to see Kate Quinn last year. That was a huge deal. [ANNE LAUGHS] I got super excited to see her.
ANNE: For those of us who’ve never attended a large literary festival like that, and I’ve never been to a festival probably even half that big. Would you tell us a little bit about what it’s like to hear from the authors, but also just to mix and mingle in a community of people who are passionate about books and reading? Like there, on the ground, in person?
SHELLY: It’s awesome hearing, like, the background of how authors come up with their ideas and I really enjoy, like, knowing the writing process, like how they go from, oh I saw this like plaque on this statute on vacation and now it’s come full circle and turned into a book.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] And next thing you know, I’m turning in my 400 page manuscript.
SHELLY: Exactly. And so that was real interesting, and then you sit next to people that you don’t know but you know that they have books in common so you end up talking about books and talking about what authors they’re there to see because you might be there seeing one author on a panel and they’re there to see another author so then you end up talking about what you like about each of those authors.
I took my son last year to it with me. We went to an adventure panel for young adult writing and he just loved it and got to have his book signed by authors. And it’s a great way to just mingle with people who, you know, are in the literary world, but also I was never into boy bands and things like that. It was always like fangirled over, like, when I met Lois Lowry, that was like a huge deal for me. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so it’s like a rock concert but for books.
ANNE: Wow. Shelly, that is a very nerdy thing to say.
SHELLY: Oh yeah. And I live into my nerdiness.
ANNE: And I think you’re in good company.
ANNE: Lots of readers are nodding along right now. Well I very much look forward to the day when we can go have that experience in person.
SHELLY: Mmhmm. Me too.
ANNE: Shelly, that’s the landscape you’re reading in. Tell us a little bit about your history as a reader.
SHELLY: My mom taught me with Dick and Jane books on the floor of our kitchen. She tells a story that I used to sit there when I was three or four and I would read Spot Runs, oh, that’s so funny, hahaha, as she’s cooking dinner but then I just grew up doing Ramona books and I loved Lois Lowry. I read all the Anastasia Krupnik books. Some people forget that she wrote those books.
ANNE: I loved those books. I love them so much.
SHELLY: I did too. I think I read every single one of them in the third grade.
ANNE: It still makes me giggle to think of the Anastasia on the sweatshirt on her chest, but the letters go into her armpits and she hated that so much.
SHELLY: Or she didn’t like her little brother and all the craziness with her younger brother.
ANNE: And the house with the tower. This isn’t like a nostalgic trip or anything.
SHELLY: It’s been a long time since I’ve read them so I haven’t remembered.
ANNE: I know. Me too.
SHELLY: Then I went to college and I was a math major for several years. But I had a literature minor, and one day I decided in the middle of a math class three weeks into the semester that I didn’t like math anymore and I was going to be a literature major. [LAUGHS] So I switched gears and got a degree in English.
ANNE: So it stuck.
SHELLY: It stuck. Yeah. But now I’m a mom of two. People are like how do you have so much time to read? I was like well I don’t do anything else. I don’t run. You know, I work but other than that, I just read. I always have a book with me. I always have an audiobook downloaded. I run to the grocery store which is five minutes away and I put on my audiobook in the car on my way to the grocery store. So I’m just always reading. And pretty wide reading. So I read pretty much anything except not a lot of high fantasy or science fiction. But other than that, I’m, like, game for whatever reading wise. And then I also have a book group that’s … We call it a book challenge group. We’re not a traditional book club because we didn’t want to be forced to read things we didn’t want to read.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] There’s a lot to evaluate there.
SHELLY: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. I just finished Gretchen Rubin’s Four Tendencies and I’m a questioner with rebel tendencies, so. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh there we go. I’m thinking I wrote a book about personality. We could really prod that for a little bit.
SHELLY: I love reading about personalities, but I didn’t want to be forced to read anything that I didn’t want to read. So we have a theme each month. Like this month we’re reading graphic novels, and then we get together and we talk about what graphic novels we read. And next month is banned books, so we’ll all read different banned books and then get together to talk about what banned books we read. So that’s my reading life.
ANNE: Shelly, I thought it was interesting that you said that your group has gotten so that you can recommend books to each other and tell your fellow members if a book is or isn’t right for them. That was really interesting. Tell me more about that.
SHELLY: So we’ve been together for almost three years now, and like we have one group member that if a dog dies in the book, she will not read it. We will tell her like oh, hey, a dog died. This is not for you. I don’t like books with 20th century serial killers or like real serial killers that could, you know, actually harm me, so people tell me if there’s serial killers or just different things like that. Since we talk about books so much together and what we like and what we don’t like, we’ve gotten really good about stating oh, this a book for so-and-so but not for so-and-so.
ANNE: I imagine all that book talk has given you insight into your own reading life as well.
SHELLY: Yes. Definitely.
ANNE: Like what are some of the things that you’ve learned?
SHELLY: So I’ve learned partly from listening to your show and really evaluating my reading and keeping track of it and then partly from this group, I like books that surprise me. I like books that are unpredictable. I like books that kinda skirt that line of thriller and horror, like horror, not so much, but thriller, fast paced. If a book says, or if somebody says like oh, this is a slow burn or this is a character driven novel, like that’s not my jam. [ANNE LAUGHS] They’ll tell me that stuff. Like Shelly, nothing happens in this book, you don’t want to read it.
ANNE: Well, Shelly, I can’t wait to see all that reflected in your book choices. Are you ready to get into your books?
SHELLY: I’m ready.
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Readers, one of my favorite fall reading categories is the campus novel. I love the atmosphere of a campus setting and being in an atmosphere of learning without having to step foot on a college campus.
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ANNE: Okay, 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 should read next. How did you choose these?
SHELLY: So I chose them based on books that surprised me in different ways. I like books that are written in a different structure, like I loved Life After Life. That was a phenomenal book because I’ve never read a book like that before that was written in that structure.
ANNE: Mm. The Kate Atkinson one?
SHELLY: Kate Atkinson, yes. And then also a book that had twists and turns that surprised me, and a book that surprised me like with information and tone. These are not my favorite books, like, of all time, you know, or anything like that. It’s just after reflecting on what I like to read and kinda what I wanted from you, I kinda reflected on what do I want more of and then what books reflect that I’ve kinda already read?
ANNE: Okay. That’s so interesting. Now many readers are listen to you thinking, I totally get why a good plot twist surprises and I totally get why new information surprises you, but what is it about the structure that you find surprising and interesting?
SHELLY: Books are usually written like beginning, middle, and end but some books are written in ways that start in the middle and you have to kinda figure out what the beginning was or backwards or they … You don’t have all the information at the beginning. The author may not set it up for you in a way that grounds you and you have to kinda like figure out what’s going on because it’s not a necessarily linear plot.
ANNE: What is it about that?
SHELLY: I think it’s because it’s different, and I like different. I like to see how an author can take something that we know and understand and make into something new because we all know how the basic plots work and I like to see an author who’s being creative and turning it on its head and doing something completely different and surprising and unexpected. It makes the reading experience new and interesting for me.
ANNE: Okay. Well with that in mind, tell us about book one.
SHELLY: So book one is The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. This book is my weird structure book. You’re thrown into the story in the middle of the story. It was really hard to talk about these surprising books without giving away kinda plot twists because [LAUGHS] that’s part of what I like about them, but we’re thrown into the story with Aiden Bishop and he wakes up in this unfamiliar forest with a name in his mind and he’s yelling this name. But we don’t know why he’s there, how he got there, what he’s doing. There’s this other person chasing somebody through the woods, like, it keeps you kinda off balanced for most of the book, and you don’t necessarily know what’s going on for most of the book as far as like why is he here and what is he doing and who is this Evelyn Hardcastle and why is he trying to save her and it just kinda keeps you off balanced.
And I really like an unreliable narrator too, so a narrator that’s part of the story that you hear from their perspective but it could be biased perspective. So anyway, we discover this world and character and conflicts through Aiden’s eyes as he discovers them and figures out what’s actually going on. There’s like a little bit Downton Abbey kinda feel to the setting but darker so if, you know, that’s something that listeners like you know, that kinda gothic-y sorta old England feel to it but with some twists and some unexpected stuff happening.
ANNE: When you first picked this up, what did you hear about it? What about it appealed to you?
SHELLY: First of all, the cover is fantastic and it’s like very art deco and I love anything that’s like early 1900s. So I might have heard about it on your show. But I picked it up right as it came out.
ANNE: Yeah, our guest Amy chose that as a favorite in episode 221. It’s called “swipe right for book love,” if you want to go back and listen to it. That was The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. Shelly, tell us about book two.
SHELLY: So book two is Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney and this is a surprising book in a way that you would think of a surprising book with twists, turns, thriller, edge of your seat. So it starts with Amber’s in a coma and she can hear everything that’s happening in her hospital room. She listens in as her husband and her best friend are discussing some different things, and then it goes through flashbacks and diary entries. We start filling in the pieces of Amber and how she ended up there in this coma in the hospital.
I really liked predicting and I can usually predict the end of the books and this book I could not, I - I finished it and I literally dropped it and I said, what did I just read? [ANNE LAUGHS] What happened here like on the last like five pages? I’m not a rereader but I want to go back and reread this one to see if I can find the clues that the author laid. It’s kinda like the movie Clue where I always watch it and I”m like I’m gonna count how many times they shoot the revolver because at the end of the movie, this is like the problem. They can’t remember how many bullets are still left in the gun. So I’m going to, I want to read it, but I know I’ll get caught up in the story and I’ll forget to look for the little clues and things like that.
But my friend at work, I had her read it too and she was like, oh I’m like 30 pages to the end and it’s wrapping up, and I was like just wait. Tomorrow we’ll talk about it. And then the next day she came in and she was, like, what? [ANNE LAUGHS] The ending. I didn’t see that coming at all. So any ending that I don’t see coming is pretty awesome, and it just flipped the whole book on its head.
ANNE: I’ve read this but it’s been awhile. I read it in the winter which would be a good time to read it. I gotta tell you, Shelly, this was not the book for me. And yet we can still have a great conversation about it.
SHELLY: Right. I would say that as listening to your podcast a lot, that is probably not an Anne book, yes. A little edge of your seat.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] But I remember that last like maybe quarter of the book just having this head spinning revelation one after the other in quick succession like what is even happening right now? And then going back to putting it back together.
SHELLY: Yeah. I think you know, and then she changes it, and then she changes it again. Yeah I felt like I’d been like on a merry go round that was going very fast and like …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] What a great description.
SHELLY: It’s like spinning round and round and I went back and was looking at my Goodreads, all it said on the review was what did I just read? That’s all it said. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And for you, that’s said with high praise.
SHELLY: That’s high praise.
ANNE: Gotcha. So that was Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney. All right, Shelly, final favorite. What did you choose?
SHELLY: Final favorite is Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright.
ANNE: This is new to me. Tell me about it.
SHELLY: Oh, this is a great book. So I really enjoy nonfiction that’s history and science together. This book took plagues over history obviously, that’s what the title says, but each chapter was about a different plague and she talks about, like, how the plague started, what it was, what happened, and then how it ended. But the surprising thing about this is it’s not just like dry boring reading. She is really, really funny. And you wouldn’t think a book about plagues is funny but this book … I laughed out loud.
Now I have a dark sense of humor, but just her turn of phrase and some of the analogies she uses to help modern readers understand like a plague that was happening to the Roman army in, you know, ancient times. The way that she just plays that out is just really, really funny, and I don’t know. She’s just great about that.
And I learned a lot from this book too, so I enjoy learning things. I like to Google books when I’m reading, like this one I was Googling, like, decimation of The Roman Army by plague and even though she understands it in the book, I still want, like, the more information. We’re a big trivia family and we play trivia a lot growing up and my dad was always, like, well why is that the answer? I used to always say I don’t have the extra information card. I just have the answer on the thing, you know, and he would go and get the encyclopedia and, like, pull it out and we would read it. Like you know, the encyclopedia was the Google of old times. So we would get it out and read it and so now I still do things like that with things I read, things I see on television. I go down a rabbit hole all the time on my Googling and this was one book that I did that. Even though she does a really great job of explaining and you don’t have to have the extra information, I like to have extra information.
ANNE: So you like to Google and yet I would imagine that it’s not just that you like to Google but you also like books that compel you to Google for more information.
SHELLY: Right. So I have a great example of something I just recently finished. I finished The Shadow Land and it takes place in Bulgaria and I know nothing about Bulgaria. Like know zero about Bulgaria, so I could have read the whole book and been just like oh this is great, but no, I was like maps and pictures and what was Bulgaria like when it was behind the Iron Curtain? ‘Cause that’s important in that story, and looking up, like, pictures of cities of these buildings that she’s talking about, all different stuff like that, and so I just end up down a rabbit hole.
ANNE: And you really like the book you were reading drove you to found out more about what was happening in the book, the subject matter, setting, all that stuff.
SHELLY: I feel like it enhances my reading of a book when I know when I can see pictures of the setting if it’s something I’m not familiar with or if I can, you know, do some more background information on what’s happening, especially if it’s a historical fiction book like background on, you know, where’s this taking place and the time it’s taking place. I like to say everything I learned about British history was from Philippa Gregory. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like I did a lot of research when I was reading all The Cousins Wars and The Tudors books.
But it makes me want to know more even if not necessarily it’s nonfiction either. It can be a fiction book, but the way that the author puts the setting together or puts the historical context together just makes me want to know more about that subject. Not necessarily that I’m going to go and pick up a 400 page nonfiction book about Cold War Bulgaria, but I just kinda want to know the Wikipedia version of, like, what happened.
ANNE: Which is interesting and comes to life for you because you’re reading the story.
ANNE: Okay. So the plague book, that was Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright. Shelly, how did you choose the book that wasn’t right for you?
SHELLY: We talked about books that were surprising so I picked a book that was surprising for me but in a not great way. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m not going to use the word hate because I thought the writing was great. You know, I thought the story was fine, but it was not for me. So the book I picked was Beach Read by Emily Henry. I picked this book up because it was part of the Summer Reading Guide also because I had heard a lot of booktubers and people on bookstagram talking about it in a positive way and that oh, this is going to be a romance not going to be follow the predictable romance plot line, but not true. I still felt like it followed that same predictable plot line that a romance romcom has. Sure they have some extra baggage that the characters are carrying, but I felt a little bit lied to. [BOTH LAUGH] I don’t know if it’s harsh.
ANNE: Who lied to you, Shelly? Who led you astray?
SHELLY: All of the booktubers that said this is not a typical romcom. And I think that’s what the Summer Reading Guide said too. [LAUGHS] I just felt like it was just predictable and love still solved all the problems and that’s not my kind of book.
ANNE: Okay. This is a serious question that’s probably going to come out sounding snarky. How might this book have been satisfying for you and have it still be described as a romance novel? Because you just said you don’t want to read a typical romance novel ‘cause they’re predictable and the thing that’s predictable about a romance novel is the happy ending. With a romance by definition in the genre love is going to conquer at least something and you’re going to end up with a happy ever after or a happy for now. So what could this book have been differently and I’m not saying like give Emily Henry advice, but I’m saying when you went in thinking like yes, it’s not going to be predictable, it’s going to be different, like how could that have been possible?
SHELLY: I thought that January could have solved her problems without having to have the support of August. Like I think … I loved that they’re having this competition almost between writing each other genres’ books. I just felt like the love story could have been more as a secondary, kinda like of a women’s fiction. But then it would be a romance. I thought it wasn’t going to be a romance. I thought it was going to be more like a Jennifer Weiner book, which I love Jennifer Weiner.
ANNE: Okay, which is interesting.
SHELLY: She has romance but it’s like a secondary plot thing, it’s not what’s driving …
ANNE: So you would’ve liked this book perhaps if it had been written in a different genre.
ANNE: Not every genre is super clear with these conventions but if you change, if you change some things about a romance novel then you don’t have a romance novel. In a romance genre there’s certain things that will not be surprising and the surprise comes in a way that it’s played out. But if you want like the main beats of the story, like the way it might end to be surprising then you know if you’re seeking that, then you should maybe look someplace else and it sounds like you already know that.
SHELLY: And I think that’s what it was. Like I went in with the expectation that it wasn’t going to be a romance novel, and it was a romance novel. That’s where I felt let down.
ANNE: Well I really relate to what you’re saying because so many times when I’m listening to people describe a book, I hear what I want to hear and kinda gloss over the stuff that doesn’t apply. I hear like oh, unpredictable, different, and forget about the fact like if someone were to tell me like oh, this movie is … I’m saying movie because specifically I’m thinking of Get Out, which I’m debating watching right now but I don’t do the scary stuff. So when people are describing a movie like Get Out to me, I hear captivating social commentary, amazing acting, and what I’m debating right now is [LAUGHS] it’s still scary, so I can’t listen for all the adjectives that appeal to me and then kinda pretend the rest don’t exist. I’m not saying that you live in denial and only hear what you want to hear, but I can definitely do that when I want to read a book that one of my fellow readers whose taste I trust to a large degree adored and that can not go so well.
SHELLY: I have like book FOMO, book fear of missing out, so I’m like everybody’s reading this so I need to read it, too, so I can be a part of the conversation.
ANNE: I get it and lots of readers really relate to that. Okay, the Summer Reading Guide does say — I had to go check — “don’t be fooled by the cheery cover. I love this book, but it’s no romcom. It ends with a warm and delightfully metatake on love, writing, and second chances.”
SHELLY: I like the writing and second chances part of that description, but apparently I just ignored the love part. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So we just want to put a big slash through that. Well, Shelly, I don’t want to say I’m glad you have this experience and yet I’m glad you have the self awareness to see what happened here ‘cause I totally get what you’re saying about wanting to have a conversation and wanting to have the experience that other people are talking about and then yet at the same time it’s really helpful for readers to recognize what they really enjoy in a book. I almost said a great book but that’s all relative, right? What they really enjoy in a book may be different than what other people really enjoy, and that’s one of the reasons we talk about books that don’t work for you because if you don’t realize those things and you don’t find a way to express it, if only to yourself, than you … You can’t change. You can’t do anything about it, so I’m not glad you had this experience, but I’m glad you’re learning from this experience.
SHELLY: And I feel like after this experience I can say, you know, for right now, that is not what I want from the books that I read so, and that’s okay.
ANNE: That was Beach Read by Emily Henry. Shelly, what are you reading right now?
SHELLY: So I’m reading The Woman in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. I had to get a historical fiction in here ‘cause I read a lot of historical fiction and they didn’t show up in my favorites necessarily so. And I like this book because of the German perspective of World War II, so it’s kinda like that little different twist as well. And then I just finished listening to The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain. Again, this was a history and science book and it was about the Alaskan earthquake in the 1960s. And I didn’t realize until I read this book that plate tectonics was not like a wide accepted theory until the late ‘60s, early 70s. And of course it had Googleable, Googleable is that a word? I don’t know if Googleable is a word.
ANNE: Oh, we’re making it a word.
SHELLY: Okay. It’s a word. I could do extra research about, like, what it was like and the people that were there and pictures from then and now and all that kind of stuff, so. And it’s in Alaska, which I’ve never been to which I think is just fascinating.
ANNE: Shelly, what do you want in your reading life?
SHELLY: I would love more books that are surprising in that structure way that we talked about but also that are surprising in information or perspective.
ANNE: So like an unconventional take on a familiar subject?
SHELLY: Yes. Or familiar structure.
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ANNE: So, Shelly, we’re looking for books that surprise you with their structure, with their plot twists, and with the information perspective point of view that they present to you or call you to enter. Something else that I think is interesting here is when you think about surprising books and how you love to learn and how you love to Google, my brain wants to go, like, the information route. Like I’m thinking of all the urban planning books I love, The Address Book by Deidre Mask where she pulls back the curtain on what it means to have an address and how that’s evolved through thousands of years. But that’s not what you’re looking for. You specifically want books that also tell stories and that put that aspect front and center. It sounds like you really love to learn like you said, Philippa Gregory gave you your historical education basically you love to learn that way and be surprised that way.
ANNE: So I just want you to know that’s what I’m keeping in mind. Let’s start with the structure. Have you read the memoir Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb.
SHELLY: No, I haven’t read that.
ANNE: So this is Bess Kalb’s first book. It’s a memoir but it is not her first time writing. She is an Emmy nominated writer for The Jimmy Kimmel Live Show.
SHELLY: And I love that show.
ANNE: Ooh, I’m glad to hear it. I get my book recommendations from a wide array of readers and also I get so many good recommendations from my writer friends and one of the reasons I think is because they know how hard it is to write a book. They know how hard it is to put a new spin on a familiar idea and they appreciate good writing and inventive writing when they see it. I had some writer friends say Anne, you’ve got to read this book. It’s fantastic.
This is a memoir about her relationship with her grandmother and I told you the subtitle is “a true as told to me story,” and that’s because Bess Kalb after her grandmother’s death imagines that her grandmother is speaking beyond the grave, talking to her and having conversations with her and telling her how to run her life and her grandmother’s voice is just so fun and sparkly and opinionated. She is the Jewish matriarch with a very interesting history who bosses her family, takes no prisoners, is not afraid to, like, barge into her children's and grandchildren's life to set things right when they need them. There’s a rescue story or two that are just fascinating.
But from the very beginning her grandmother, her name is Bobby, is speaking from beyond the grave, she’s at her own funeral. She says it sucks. It’s really boring and the worst part is the dirt. Like she doesn’t like being dead. She didn’t want it, but here we go. You said that you enjoy books that are told in like newspaper articles and emails and essays and well this one isn’t told like this, but there’s several different conventions by which Bobby is having conversations with Bess or writing her letters or sending her emails. There’s some text exchanges, and so the book is always moving. Like it feels really fast paced just because Bess Kalb is constantly mixing things up. Ugh, I just love this grandmother. I think you might too.
SHELLY: I love a strong female, take-no-prisoners character too, so she sounds like she’s just gonna be one my favorites. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I hope so. This is a small book, so you can get through it maybe too quickly. Maybe it’ll be over before you wished it was, but you said you liked fast paced and stories that keep moving and I think, yeah, I think this could be a winner for you.
SHELLY: That sounds awesome.
ANNE: That is Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb. Now let’s go for the twists. You love Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney because it made you [LAUGHS] it made you like sit up and go, what just happened and go back flipping through the pages like did I miss something? And because of that that feeling of like, wait, what? I want to make sure that you read I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh because I think you need to read this book. The shocking twists has been perhaps overly marketed and perhaps overly written these past fives years or so, but oh my gosh, this book is so good. And something that I think is especially noteworthy about it is that it manages to surprise the reader and induce jaw dropping moments without feeling gimmicky or manipulative or heavy ended, and that is not easy.
So this book begins on a dark, rainy night. They’re in England. A mother’s walking with her five year old. She lets go of his hand just for a moment and there’s a devastating accident and that’s what sets the plot in motion. I mean, of course I don’t want to tell you too much because that’s the thing about surprises, you don’t want to say what happens, but Clare Mackintosh, she spent 12 years as a police officer. This is part procedural, definitely domestic suspense but Mackintosh spent 12 years as a police officer. She knows what she’s writing. It totally shows. I finished reading part one. I turned the page to part two, and [LAUGHS] went what? ‘Cause all of a sudden she turns the story and makes you realize that you assumed someone was telling you the story and you have been completely wrong.
ANNE: So there’s that big moment that made me go, oh, wow. Clare Mackintosh, that was good. But that’s not the only moment where she really drops like a big surprise into the story.
ANNE: It feels true to the story. It feels exciting. Like there’s a detective on the case that’s trying to figure out what happens, like I mean, their job is to uncover new evidence and figure out motivations and so it feels true to the story, but it also feels really exciting to the reader. It’s an emotional rollercoaster of a book. It obviously has tough material, and so listeners, you know, listen up. I think you can do it just fine. I mean, how does that sound?
SHELLY: That sounds phenomenal.
ANNE: That is I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. So finally you said that you had to include historical fiction because you needed it to represent your reading life. I feel like that means we need to talk about it to bring you that experience of learning about history through a good story.
SHELLY: Whenever I need another book, that’s what I’d reach for. I reach for historical fiction.
ANNE: Okay. That’s good to know. The one I have in mind is by Karin Tanabe. It’s new. It came out this past April. It’s called A Hundred Suns. Are you familiar with this?
ANNE: This is a novel that I think will have you rushing to google going, wait, is that real? Did that happen? Which of these people are real and which did she make up, and what is really happening, and was that really a thing? Did they really treat people like that?
ANNE: And okay, so, now for the specifics. This novel’s set in the 1930s. It’s set in France and in Indochina and it’s about an American born woman with a troubled past that maybe she told some lies to cover up, moved to Paris, married a French husband and he is one of the less competent, somewhat neglected sons of the famous, rich, and influential Michelin family. Now usually when people say Michelin, I think food, restaurants, fine dining, how many stars? But this is about the Michelin tire company and that’s one of the aspects that had me running to Google.
At the time, the Michelin company has plantations. They’re rubber plantations near Hanoi. Jessie, the American, and her French husband Victor move to the Hanoi area with their daughter so that he can take this new job. They meet all these French expats who have also moved there to basically colonize the country. As Jessie gets settled, gets more comfortable in the community, she starts to notice some things and she starts to ask some questions and also she has some really strange experiences and I don’t want to say too much, but something else I like about this book for you. There’s a map in the front that shows you the landscape where the book is going to take place.
SHELLY: Ooh. I like a book with a map.
ANNE: I suspected you would, Shelly. [SHELLY LAUGHS] But there’s this incident right at the beginning of the book. Jessie’s in a train station, she’s with her family. Something shocking happens and as a reader, I thought, what in the world. And then we go back and we get the story from the beginning. And I think that kind of approach is going to be really fun for you. You kinda know where we ended up, but you’re not sure exactly what it means when it happens and then you definitely don’t know how Jessie could have gone from here to there.
Something else that’s really interesting about this book is Victor works in the rubber trade. He oversees a rubber plantation. I think you’ll be rushing to Google going how much of this was real? Did this really happen? The workers are treated horribly, and there’s all kind of themes in this book that I think you’ll find really interesting and also really timely.
And I really enjoyed hearing Karin Tanabe talk about her inspiration for this book and what she found you know, fascinating and how she developed her plot. She was drawn to the period because she spent a lot of time in Vietnam and still does.She herself is half-Belgian and half-Japanese. She describes those as being two countries with kinda sworded colonial pasts and she really wanted to write something where she could explore that and research that. She also said that she wanted to write something where she could do her research in French because she grew up speaking French, and I think those little details and the obvious personal Karin attention and curiosity driven interest that Tanabe had in her own story, I think you’ll find that really interesting.
SHELLY: Yeah, that sounds amazing.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. That is A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe. So we got structure, we got twists, we got information through the lens of story. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
SHELLY: I think I’m going to read the Nobody Will Tell You This But Me just ‘cause that sounds the farthest out of what I normally read so I think I’m going to pick that one up first.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
SHELLY: Thanks so much for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Shelly, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/252 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. Find Shelly on Instagram @shellyreads.stuff and on Instagram as Shelly Reads. That’s S-H-E-L-L-Y. Shelly.
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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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• Author Kate Quinn (try The Huntress)
• The Dick and Jane series
• Ramona Quimby, Age 8 by Beverly Cleary
• Anastasia Krupnik by Lois Lowry
• The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too) by Gretchen Rubin
• Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
♥ The 7 ½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
♥ Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney
♥ Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright
• Author Philippa Gregory (try The Red Queen)
△ Beach Read by Emily Henry
• The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
• The Great Quake: How the Biggest Earthquake in North America Changed Our Understanding of the Planet by Henry Fountain
• The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask
• Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (As Told to Me) Story by Bess Kalb
• I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh
• A Hundred Suns by Karin Tanabe
• The Tucson Festival of Books
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What do YOU think Shelly should read next?
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