I love asking readers what they want more of in their reading lives, and over the last several months, I’ve heard the answer “comfort reads” over and over again. “Comfort read” means something different to every reader, but if you’re looking for books that slow your heart rate, soothe your soul, and make you want to travel to a quiet English village, this episode is for you.
Today’s guest appreciates cozy, comforting reads that feel like a warm hug. In fact, Gina House has been known to literally hug her books when she’s done reading.
Gina adores cozy mysteries like Agatha Christie novels, but she could do without the murder. Today, I’m recommending charming books that pair well with a comfy chair and a cup of tea.
Let’s get to it!
GINA: To me I always say, I’m trying to find a book that’s like Agatha Christie without the murder and mystery, and people are like, there’d be no story. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 261.
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, we decorated the library Christmas tree here at home earlier than ever this year because I’ll take all the twinkle lights and holiday spirit I can get. I’ll also take ALL the book talk these days, which is why I can’t wait for our Winter Book Preview. This live event is our chance to geek out about this season’s new releases. I’ll share the books I’ve already read and loved and can’t wait for you to get your hands on as well as the ones *I* can’t wait to get my hands on and read this winter.
In our 90 minute live event, we’ll share over 42 titles, but you don’t need to write them all down. You’ll also get a beautiful digital magazine full of every title we mention and a few fun extras like 2020 reading highlights from the What Should I Read Next team.
The livestream, recorded video of the event, and digital magazine are exclusive to members of our What Should I Read Next patreon community and the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. Become a member of our patreon community at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext. That’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/WhatShouldIReadNext
Put some bookish joy on your calendar and plan to join us December 8th to celebrate what’s on the horizon. I will see you next week!
I love asking readers what they want more of in their reading lives, and over the last several months, I’ve heard the answer “comfort reads” over and over again. “Comfort read” means something different to every reader, but if you’re looking for books that slow your heart rate, soothe your soul, and make you want to travel to a quiet English village, well this episode is for you.
Today’s guest appreciates cozy, comforting reads that feel like a warm hug. In fact, Gina House has been known to literally hug her books when she’s done reading them.
Gina adores cozy mysteries like Agatha Christie novels, but she could do without the murder. So today, I’m recommending charming books that pair well with a comfy chair and a big cup of tea.
Let’s get to it.
Gina, welcome to the show.
GINA: Hi, Anne, thanks so much for having me. I was going to say if I was an emoji, I would totally be a smiling face with starry eyes and pink heart with double sparkle. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And then a couple stacks of books, right?
GINA: Oh, yes. [ANNE LAUGHS] At least - at least a couple.
ANNE: And you know what I think, this is a What Should I Read Next first, I think you’re our first New Hampshire guest.
GINA: That is so great. Hello, New Hampshire readers out there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Gina, we were really excited to get your guest submission because you said that you were on the hunt for more cozy and comforting reads, which I imagine sounds so good to so many readers right now.
GINA: This is like the perfect time I think to just sit in a cozy chair with your cup of tea and read a book that, like, makes you feel so happy and cozy.
ANNE: Is this what you’re always looking for in the season of your reading life, or is this a specific, here and now reading desire?
GINA: I think it’s an all the time reading desire. I feel like when I was younger I had certain other books and types of reading that I really enjoyed, but since I’ve been in my forties, I feel like what makes me most happy are books that make me feel warm, cozy, and just make me want to hug a book when I’m done.
ANNE: Like literally hug the book?
GINA: Oh yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I know that we talk about people literally flinging books across the room, do they get literal hugs as well?
GINA: Oh they do. I know the book is a five star, I mean, there are some five stars I haven’t hugged, but for the most part, if it makes me either cry in a good way at the end or I hug the book, I know that that is my five star huggable comfort book and I have to find more like that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Does this mean that you’re a hugger of physical books? Or are you an e-reader as well?
GINA: My husband did get me a Kindle, which I was against at first, but I do read a few books on Kindle. But mostly I have to, like to me, the experience of holding a book, smelling a book, deckled edges, all that is like part of the reason I really enjoy reading. So I think that having a physical book is my preferred reading method.
ANNE: Okay, Gina, you have a very special collection of books. Can you tell us a little about that?
GINA: Yes. Ah, so, my grandmother who turned 100 years old this year in April, my grandmother Catherine, she is also a huge reader and when I was growing up, I used to borrow a lot of her books and then she actually gave me her entire collection of Agatha Christie books and as soon as I started to read them, oh my goodness, I loved them so much. And it was not because of the mystery mostly, I mean, those were great, but it was because of the way she wrote that made them so wonderful and gave me that cozy feeling. So I read them. I can’t even tell you, I think I’ve read each one of those books ten times would be an understatement. I’ve actually listened to the audio versions of those at least ten times as well each. But then when I had her collection, I kept carrying them from place to place when my husband and I were starting our family, and then when we were moving from one house to another house, for some reason, we were in this like let’s get rid of as much as we can, and I had so many boxes of books. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, I have a bad feeling right now.
GINA: Oh my God... yes.
ANNE: Okay, what happened?
GINA: So we had a yard sale and I got … Not all of them, but most of the books I was like, oh someone else will enjoy them. Almost that night, I felt so much regret, like the most heartbreaking regret. So then I had only a few, maybe five books left of those collection that was from my grandmother. If you’re listening to this, don’t ever do that. Learn from my horrible mistake. But since then, that was like 15 years ago, I’ve been slowly buying the same editions of those books that I had from her, and now I think I’m only missing a few, but I want, like specific editions, so I’m almost done having my entire collection back.
ANNE: Well I would like to think that you got dozens of readers hooked on your grandmother’s Agatha Christie novels with your act of service back in your 20s.
GINA: Thank you for saying that ‘cause that is the only small comfort that I have from doing that yard sale, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve donated a book saying I was done with it, and then I’ve gone to like a thrift store and bought the same book. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m telling you, a couple of times, they were actually my own book because my name was in it.
GINA: Like that is not a joke. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun. Well if you put it into the universe and it ends up finding its way back to you, there’s something there, Gina.
GINA: I think so too, yeah, so, I have to be very careful now because as hard as I try to be a minimalist and also a book reader at the same time, it just doesn’t work out. I - I … It’s so hard to choose to keep or to not keep.
ANNE: Let’s go back and talk about your reading habits here. At least ten times each? That is a whole lot of rereading.
GINA: [LAUGHS] That is not an exaggeration. If you ask my husband, when I was telling him I was going to tell you that, he said to me, that’s - that’s - you’re really understating that, and I was like well, I never kept track. But I am serious. At least ten times, maybe more. More like 20 times each. Each … Like every single book.
ANNE: What keeps calling you back?
GINA: I think it’s because like I said the way that she writes is so soothing, like I love books that take place in English villages and with, like, quirky characters that are really lovable and for some reason, I love books that take place in like 1950s or before. I don’t know why. [LAUGHS] But all of those things kinda come together and make it feel really cozy to me.
ANNE: How disparate is that from your own background?
GINA: Ah, well, yes I definitely don’t live in England. I wish I did. I think that’s one of the reasons why I like cozy books is because I’ve really struggle with anxiety since I was little and also being in HSP, I feel like sometimes things get too overwhelming for me emotionally, so I think reading things where people are just sitting and having tea and having a conversation and what’s happening in the little village, it’s not overwhelming and it makes me feel like I’m part of this small community that everybody takes care of each other despite what happens in the plot or in the story. You know?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Everybody sits around drinking tea, talking about the murder.
GINA: I know, and it’s so funny because like you know, people are like, but if you don’t like books about you know, suffering, there’s dead bodies like in this book, and I was like but that’s like on the side. It’s what the books are about, but to me not really. To me I always say I’m trying to find a book that’s like Agatha Christie without the murder and mystery, and people are like, there’d be no story, and I’d be like [ANNE LAUGHS] and I say to myself but that’s exactly what I want. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So we are definitely going ot keep that in mind today and try to figure out how to give you that cozy Christie murder mystery feeling without the murder. And maybe without the mystery.
GINA: Right. I mean those things could be in it but I prefer them without.
ANNE: Okay. Gina, you’ve been a reader for a long, long time. Have you always gravitated toward those older books?
GINA: No. When I was in my 20s and even probably in my teens, I was, like, completely obsessed with Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I think Dean Koontz’s Lightning was the first book I read of his, and I was like oh my God, this is amazing. And I also love books about aliens. [LAUGHS] Anything like really thrilling. And I couldn’t get enough of them for so, so long. I think it’s after I graduated college and we had a baby, I think after that it completely stopped, and it was like I wanted the exact opposite. So my tastes are very different from when I was younger.
ANNE: Have you tried to analyze what happened? Are you just going with it?
GINA: I think it just makes sense to me how, like when you’re younger, you always want to have new adventures, new experiences, and then once you’ve had a lot of maybe stress or exciting experiences, then you kinda wanna have the opposite in your life where you’re feeling more soothed and someone’s taking care of you instead of you taking care of somebody else. [BOTH LAUGH] And I feel like books really do that. I feel like the books that I love are books that feel like they take care of me and the characters are friends that I think about later.
I was lucky because when I was little my mom would take, because she worked a lot, whenever she had free time, she would take me to the library and get me books. She was like my library angel and she would read to me and my sister at night and I think that really helped, made me love books so much more because it was spending time with her, and my sister, and also bringing my love of books so strongly into my life when I was young.
ANNE: Okay. So you said that you like reading about the relationships on the page, but books have been significant in your important relationships as well.
GINA: Oh definitely. Yeah.
GINA: My sister used to constantly bug me because she’s … We’re only a year apart. But she’s very outdoorsy and she used to beg me to leave the house and my book to go ride bikes with her. [BOTH LAUGH] And like most of the time I was like no, sorry, Kim, I can’t do that, and she would be so sad. So sometimes I’d give in and put my book down. Mostly it was trying, her trying to tear me away from my book and getting out of the house when we were little. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Several decades later, how much as changed?
GINA: I’m still the same I feel like. I still love being at home. I am so excited that I get to work from home now and I usually read at least three books at a time, a book in the morning, a book in the afternoon, a book at night. So books are definitely a huge part of my life still.
ANNE: Are those different books? Do you have different kinds of reading you do, morning, noon, and night?
GINA: Oh, yes, so in the morning, I start out with a spiritual or like meditation mindfulness type book, and then later morning or afternoon, I like to read either a middle grade book or children’s book, and then at night I like to read my main book. And then sometimes if I’m really ambitious, I also have a nonfiction book, like, about some new age type subject, like crystals or tarot or ghosts, or something like that. I’m always reading three books at a time at least.
ANNE: Crystals, tarot, or ghosts.
GINA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Or energy medicine or you know, something like that.
ANNE: Yeah. Okay. And you think of the evening book as your main book?
GINA: Yes. Yeah, that’s the one that I give the most time to. If I’m lucky, I have about two hours of reading a day. I get up about 5:45, so at night I like to give at least an hour to read, and the other times during the day, it’ll be like 15 to 20 minutes, or half an hour if I’m really lucky.
ANNE: Okay. What happens if you miss one of your sessions?
GINA: Oh. I mean. I have, but it is sad and I feel like taking time to just sit down ‘cause I’m a huge goal-orientated person, so if I’m not productive, I sometimes don’t feel good about myself, so sitting down really helps me to be less frantic about like accomplishing my goals and so it’s a much needed thing for me to try to learn, is to try to slow down and enjoy the moment. So that’s what I’m trying to do.
ANNE: All right, well, we will see if we can find books that can help you toward those ends.
GINA: That’d be great.
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ANNE: Well Gina, I’d love to hear more about your specific books. Are you ready to get into them?
GINA: I think so, yeah.
ANNE: Okay. 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. Gina, how did you choose these favorites today?
GINA: It was very hard. I really wish you had a ten favorite sct... [BOTH LAUGH] Section because it was so hard to pick three, but I tried to pick three that were three different types of books that I generally like or ones that I reread a lot, that are not Agatha Christie because I feel like even though I read those all the time, I want something that was different just to show you other kinds of books that I do like.
ANNE: And what did you choose for book one?
GINA: Okay. So book one is The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. So the story takes place in a cathedral city in the 1870s that is kinda ruled over by this formidable dean, his name is Adam Ayscough. Even though he really loves the parishioners and townspeople, he is really crippled by shyness and so this shyness makes him appear unapproachable and grumpy and really severe, which he is really not. One day he meets this timid little watchmaker named Isaac Peabody who is also a genius clockmaker and makes these beautiful things, they strike up this friendship, and the friendship helps to make them not only understand themselves more but also how to love and interact with other people and so it kinda reawakens a spiritual part of themselves that was lacking. So that transformation brings out more love and peace in the whole city. It’s just a beautiful book.
ANNE: What’s the comfort read factor on Elizabeth Goudge for you?
GINA: Oh my goodness, I would say definitely five. Well — if I was being very picky, I would say 4.75 because in her books, there does seem to be a high level of sacrifice and sometimes that’s a little bit frustrating for me because I’m like just don’t do that, like, you can relax your morals a tiny bit. If it didn’t have that, all of her books would be five stars for me. But I still give them five stars because they resonate so deeply with me, her beautiful writing is just amazing.
ANNE: And you care about the writing. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of writing we’re looking for, but you’ve said that about Christie, about Goudge
GINA: Yes, so this author has the most descriptive, gorgeous, like beautiful prose. It’s the kinda book where you want to keep a highlighter or pencil or book darts with you because you come upon these paragraphs or just single sentences that are so beautiful you can see them in your mind and you just want to reread that sentence over and over. I usually have notes so I can go back and read those passages over and over. They’re just so descriptive. The imagery is just really beautiful.
ANNE: Okay, that was The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge. Gina, what did you choose for book two?
GINA: For book two I chose Archangel by Sharon Shinn. It’s the first book in the Samaria series.
ANNE: This is a book that’s new to me. Tell me more about it.
GINA: I’ve only read like three fantasy series in my life and I don’t really gravitate toward fantasy, but for some reason, I don’t know how I picked this book up but it was just amazing. This is another reread and listen to on Audible that I frequently go back to. So it’s fantasy and it takes place on another planet that succeeds Earth in the future.
Every 20 years a new Archangel is chosen to govern this land called Samara. The new Archangel is introduced during, like, this beautiful celebration where they have music and singing of the angels and the people. And so, not only is this celebration of singing for all the people but the Archangel also has to have a new bride. So this book is about Gabriel, the angel chosen to become the next archangel and he has to not only find his bride, Rachel, who is not an angel, and also try to get a relationship going with her that is beneficial for both of them because they both don’t know each other. So this book is about them finding each other, trying to get along with each other, and this beautiful planet that also has a lot of undercurrents of strife and difficulties because the current Archangel does not want to give up his power to Gabriel, who is going to be the new Archangel.
ANNE: If this isn’t what you typically read, do you remember how you stumbled upon it?
GINA: I wish I did. I think it’s because I judge books by their cover, like literally, [LAUGHS] and I was at Barnes and Nobel and I saw this, and I was like wow, that’s beautiful. [LAUGHS] And I just, I think I just picked it up and it ended up being the most wonderful fantasy book that I’ve ever read and the story is just so … It just captivates you and it’s such an original idea.
I think it’s one of five books and all the books are amazing. The second one you find out some surprising things, so if you like the first one, definitely read the second. The series is just so original and unique, and the way that she writes is so enjoyable. She really captures your attention and the characters are so interesting and you really feel for them and you really want to know, oh my gosh, like what happens next with these people? I want to know. I don’t want to leave this book.
ANNE: That’s a great way to feel. That is Archangel by Sharon Shinn. Gina, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
GINA: Okay, so this one was really hard. But I did choose Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. That one really shows my interest in Chinese culture because I’m half Chinese. My dad is Chinese and my mom is not, and so I really do love books that take place in China, especially long ago like in the 1800s and 1900s and also Pearl S. Buck, which I also love her books. Both of them write so deeply about China and the relationships between men and women and just like, just situations in general that were really important at like that time so that’s why I chose this book.
ANNE: I’ve read some Lisa See but not this one. Tell me more.
GINA: Okay. So this story takes place in, I believe, 19th century China with a country girl named Lily who I think is seven when the story starts, and her emotional matriarch companion which is called a lao tong named Snow Flower. So they introduce each other by writing on a silk fan with a special language written in a poetry style called nu shu, that’s generally just used by Chinese women to communicate in secret without men being able to understand, like, the messages. This story is generally about Lily and Snowflower and all the messages and stories they send to each other during their lifetime, their hopes and dreams, how they feel isolated at times. They have such a deep bond and they find a lot of comfort in their relationships. In the middle of the book, I don’t want to give it away, but there’s a misunderstanding that occurs between them that kinda threatens their friendship, so that’s generally what this book is about.
The descriptions of the homes, the clothing, the characters, all of it was really vivid to me. Once I began reading this book and getting to know the characters, I completely lost myself in this world, the girls every day experiences, their feelings, and how they handle joy and obstacles that came their way really made them feel more like dear friends than characters in this book. And of course it also made me think about how my grandmother’s life was not so much different from the women of that time, even though they were born in different decades.
ANNE: I have enjoyed what I’ve read by Lisa See. I would love to read more, and that one sounds intriguing. I love your personal connection to that book as well.
GINA: It really helps me ...like before I was younger because I was half Chinese, a lot of kids not made fun of me and my sister but we didn’t really fit in, and so I was kinda not interested in learning more about Chinese. I tried to distance myself from that part of my life and part of my culture until I became like an adult and in my 20s and then I started becoming really interested and unfortunately my Chinese grandparents had passed away, and so I couldn’t talk to them about it. But I really love books that take place in China, like long ago, and that really talk about relationships that happen between families and all … the culture is so different than here and so it’s just really great to be able to immerse myself in that way.
ANNE: Have you stumbled upon any other favorites that have the characteristics that you know you really enjoy reading about?
GINA: Like I said, all Pearl S. Buck books that take place in China, especially The Good Earth. There are so many … The Mother … There are so many of her books that I always go back to because it really gives me a sense of living in that time and her writing is also incredibly beautiful.
ANNE: Okay. I’m so glad to hear that. Now, to figure out what you may enjoy reading next, it’s helpful to hear what didn’t work for you. So could you tell me about a book that just was not right?
GINA: Yes I do, but I know people say that they’re hesitant to say it, and I definitely feel … It’s more that I feel sad about it because I had heard about this book on your podcast and I was so excited to read it because it sounded .... like everything about it sounded like it would be for me. So this book is The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan and I had such high hopes because it’s about books and it’s about having like, living in a tiny house/barn being in the beautiful Scottish countryside. I thought oh my god, this is my book. So I bought it, and I was really disappointed and I feel so bad about that.
I think it just came to me the wrong time in my life. I think that if I had read this book in my 20s, I would have liked it more. I think it’s because now that it felt like a YA book, but I didn’t feel sympathy for any of the characters. I felt like all the characters just annoyed me. I felt like Nina, although I thought she was brave to start a new life in another country and do something new, I felt like she wasn’t very sympathetic. Caring for her and what happened to her just kinda like eluded me and I didn’t really know why. And her friends, Sunrinder, I felt like not a very good friend and just bullied and nagged her all the time and her friend was not kind to her so I just wanted to, like, shake her friend, say just be nice to Nina for once!
And then I think the relationship with Lennox, the person whose farm that she was living on, I felt like it was just very predictable. He was just too much of a jerk for me to like [ANNE LAUGHS] and he kinda like, he kinda lets down his guard a little bit and kinda talks to her condescendingly but I just, I think my hopes were too high and it was just more of a light romance and I was just so let down.
ANNE: I wanna explore this a little bit because as you’re looking for cozy and comforting, I can see how absolutely on the surface this is a story about a young woman who wants to reinvent herself by moving to Scotland and opening a … Well, it’s called the bookshop, but really it’s a book van. Actually the British title is The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, which …
ANNE: May make a little more sense.
GINA: That makes more sense.
ANNE: But I can see how on the surface this is great, like, woman loses her library job because I think there’s funding issues and then they basically wanna replace her with a computer. Is that what happened?
ANNE: Okay. I think you read this more recently than me. She buys a van, and she turns it into a bookmobile and she takes books to this tiny village in Scotland. She gets the thrill of recommending the right book to the right person and she forms friendships and wins people over forever by saying you know what you would love? This one, and they do, and they love books and they become friends with her and she falls for a grumpy Scot who’s apparently a little too grumpy for you.
GINA: [LAUGHS] Yup.
ANNE: So I would think if you’re looking for a cozy read, this seems to like check some of those elements. I wanna make sure I understand like why it wasn’t good, so you felt like it was a little predictable.
GINA: Yes. And I feel like it was more like a light romance that had so many frustrating elements to it. I just wanted them to understand each other [ANNE LAUGHS] and get over their young person drama and just be an adult and say what you feel and say what you mean. Like I’m 47, so I think reading it now is maybe just I’m just so over it all that if I read this in my 20s, it might have been the opposite. I might not have felt bothered or frustrated, I might have been feeling very sympathetic and like yeah, he should have done this, or he should have done that, or you should have done this. But I think at this time in my life, it felt to me more like a YA book and those really frustrate me and teen angst is really hard for me right now, so I’m like I can’t go there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. So, no YA for you right now. That’s an important takeaway from this. [GINA LAUGHS] With a book like this, you do know how the characters are going to end up. You know they’re going to end up happy. You know that the romantic leads are going to end up together. You know that the shop is going to, like, come out okay in the end, so as a reader, you have to enjoy the journey of getting there. It sounds like you didn’t.
GINA: No, and it’s strange because I usually really like things that are extremely predictable. I love planning everything, organizing everything, so that’s why I was just really surprised. I found such relief in finishing the book. I put it down, I was like thank goodness that’s over. I don’t really know why exactly because I usually do like books that have an uplifting and predictable ending. But I think it was because of the light romance part of it that made things really hard for me to enjoy as much as I wanted to.
ANNE: Well I’m glad we had this conversation because at the beginning of our talk, I had a book in mind for you that I thought might be great. It featured books. It was set in England that you like. There was a small village with smart relationships, and it really reminded me of this very title that didn’t work for you. So we’re not going there, Gina.
GINA: Oh no, I was going to say tell me anyway. [BOTH LAUGH] I want all the recommendations. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. I’ll let you know after we record. Maybe it’ll be a Patreon bonus episode.
ANNE: All right, so that was The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan, or The Little Shop of Happy Ever After if you’re in the U.K. Not for you. Gina, what have you been reading lately?
GINA: I am part of a book club, the Elizabeth Goudge book club on Instagram. Love that book club so much, so I’m reading Green Dolphin Street this month and that one is also an amazing book, so it’s not, like, as high as The Dean’s Watch but very close and I’m enjoying every minute of that book. I’m also reading Becoming by Michelle Obama. That I’m listening to on audio and then I’m reading Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and the last book I’m reading right now is Energy Medicine by Donna Eden.
ANNE: Okay. So that sounds like a nice sampling of morning, afternoon, and evening. We don’t have a middle grade though, so I’ll think about that as we move forward.
GINA: Oh, I actually just this morning I just finished Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Martin and oh my God, that one is another five star rating. I loved that book.
ANNE: Oh, I don’t know that one.
GINA: Oh, you have to read it, Anne! It is so beautiful. The illustrations are gorgeous. It is just such a wonderful, sweet fairytale type read, and usually I don’t like fairytales, but this one 100% worth reading. I loved it.
ANNE: Okay, Gina, something I’ve noticed from our conversation is you’ve said usually I don’t read fantasy, usually I don’t like fairytales [GINA LAUGHS] but I hear that you’re willing to try books even if they usually aren’t what you read.
GINA: Yes, I think it’s less the genre than the type of writing or how that author writes their books. So I think I’m pretty open minded when it comes to genre, but I think to me it has to be character driven and it has to have beautiful writing or else I’m not able to keep going with it.
ANNE: I mean you said beautiful writing, we want writing that’s really descriptive, makes it easy for you to picture the scene in front of you. Is that fair, is that how you put it?
GINA: Yes. Yes. Like sentences that not only you can see in your mind and have a lot of imagery, but like if you want to write down a quote later or to tell someone and to share with other people like, this is so gorgeous, you have to read this book.
ANNE: And I get the impression from some of the books you’ve said you loved that it doesn’t necessarily need to be like describing a sunset at this peak, emotional moment, but that it can be quippy and clever as well.
GINA: Oh definitely. I also love epistolary novels because it feels like each little section has so much in it before it goes to like the next letter, and I think that’s why short stories and epistolary novels because of that, because you get a lot of depth and description in one small little chunk.
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ANNE: All right, Gina, we got a lot to work with here. So the books you love, The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge, Archangel by Sharon Shinn, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, which narrowly beat out three other books. Not for you The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan, and you’re looking for cozy and comforting books. So you told us on your submission, nothing thrilling, no heartache, no horrible illnesses, no great tragedy. You’re looking for books that bring happiness and joy and bring that hug the book when I’m done feeling.
ANNE: Something that I’m wrestling through with is if we’re talking about fiction, at least in part, and fiction is driven by conflict, how much conflict or what kind of conflict can we handle?
GINA: Yeah, I think if the conflict is more of the undercurrent of the book and not the main focus of the book, then I’m okay with it because I think most of the books I’ve read have had some sort of conflict or you know, maybe small amounts of suffering or heartache but it’s not the main focus of the book. It’s more how the characters interact with each other and get past it, but it’s not the main focus. So I think - I think if it has some conflict it’s okay.
ANNE: And it seems like the tone is really important for you. The tone of all these books you enjoy is gentle, there’s kindness, there’s a general … It might be easier to say what these books are not, like they’re not satirical. They’re not snarky. They’re not mean spirited.
GINA: Yeah, I don’t like gossipy books or romantic comedies or teen angst. [LAUGHS] But I do like a book that’s hopeful.
ANNE: You’ve been open to picking up stuff that’s a little off your beaten path if it has some of the elements you think you’re looking for.
GINA: Yes definitely. I’m definitely open to something that’s not a type of book that I usually read as long as it gives me that cozy, comforting feeling.
ANNE: Okay. First book I have in mind is an epistolary novel.
GINA: Oh yay!
ANNE: First published in 1911. It seems perfect for you so I wonder of course if you’ve already read it.
GINA: Oh I love 1911. Keep going.
ANNE: The book I have in mind is by Jean Webster, it’s called Daddy-Long-Legs. Is this one you know?
GINA: No. Not at all. Oh I’m excited.
ANNE: Now first of all this book needs a major disclaimer. It came out in 1911 and if you look at the plot with modern eyes, it might feel a little wrong. Just remember. You’re in a time machine. You’re reading a book set in 1911. We’re just going to go with it.
ANNE: So this is epistolary, that means of course it is a novel in letters and it’s about a young girl whose name is Jerusha Abbott. She does not like her name. We’ll get to that in a second. Her parents died. She was raised in an orphanage. That is the backdrop of the story. As she gets ready to graduate high school, she writes an essay and it catches the attention of the orphanage’s trustees when they come to visit. It’s a snarky essay, but it’s 1911 gently precocious young woman snarky. I think you’re going to be okay with it, Gina. So the management is appalled that she would entertain the trustees in this way. [GINA LAUGHS] But one of the trustees is quite amused. He loves her spirit and her smarts and he arranges for her to go to college and he is going to … Actually he may not tell her this, but he is going to be the one to pay for it and his only condition is that she has to write him regular letters. And something that’s really fun about this book is she illustrates these letters.
GINA: Oh my goodness. [GASPS]
ANNE: So there’s different pages that show ... they’re stick figure drawings, but they’re precious. They’re photos of her learning to skate with her friends and do gymnastics in gym class, or whatever they called it in 1911. Studying hard. In one illustration she receives two flunk notes and she sheds many tears. [GINA LAUGHS] It’s adorable. Jerusha goes to college, renames herself Judy, and we never hear from Jerusha.
But she writes these letters to Daddy-Long-Legs, and that’s where the name of the book comes from, and the reason is because she’s never met him. She’s never seen his face. She’s only seen his tall shadow on the ground, and you know if you’re standing outside, late afternoon, your shadows thirty feet long. Well that’s how he got the name. He never writes her back. It is just her sending letters to him, and everything goes through a secretary. She doesn’t know his mailing address. But she goes to college. She makes friends. She plays basketball [GINA LAUGHS] because apparently girls in 1911 played basketball which is kinda fun. She’s a regular girl but a really likable and charming one. She’s not perfect, and that’s good.
But she goes through college. She pushes back against Daddy-Long-Legs, who wants her to do certain things, paying for her to go to the country for the summer and she starts pushing back and meanwhile she starts falling in love, maybe, kinda, almost with someone, but it all ends well, it’s all very happy, I think you’ll find it sweet and cozy and charming and the right kind of old fashioned and everybody who deserves a happy ending needs a happy ending. How does that sound?
GINA: That sounds amazing. I love that it takes place in 1911 and that she has like very childish illustrations in it. The whole story sounds so sweet. It actually kinda reminds me of Anne of Green Gables in a spirit way where she’s got so much like enthusiasm and now I’m super excited to read this book.
ANNE: I can totally see the Anne of Green Gables thing. Marilla would call her plucky, or would that be Rachel Lynde who would call her plucky? And then if you liked this one, I mean, please read Daddy-Long-Legs first, but in 2013 Katherine Reay, I think this was actually her debut, wrote a novel called Dear Mr. Knightly and in this version, it’s the same set up, Mr. Knightly, that’s not his real name. I think that’s what Samantha dubs him because she’s a Jane Austen fan, and so is Katherine Reay. There’s a dash of Jane Austen in this book, but she writes her letters to Mr. Knightly, whose funding or maybe she thinks his organization is funding, I believe, it’s a journalism scholarship at Northwestern. So that story’s set in Chicago.
ANNE: So if you do like the 1911 one, maybe the 2013 one can be a fun follow up.
GINA: That sounds great. I love a twofer. Two for one in the same style. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Exactly. Okay. Next up, have you read The Blue Castle?
GINA: No, it’s so funny you say that because I just bought it but I have not read it. You recommended it to someone else on the podcast and I was like that sounds amazing. So I did buy it, but I have not started.
ANNE: That’s right I did. I recommend it to Holli Petersen in episode 181, so readers if you want to hear what I say the first time, that episode is called “Taking your reading life from good to great.” I think you’d really like this one, Gina. So this is the story of Valancy, it’s a standalone, it’s not a series. She lives with her dower mother and aunt and when I pictured her growing up in their household, I just picture really dark, ugly curtains and no sunlight and no visitors.
ANNE: Which I don’t know if that’s from the book or if that’s the emotion of the circumstances coloring how I view their parlor, but this poor young woman has never had any independence or life of her own, but then she goes to the doctor and she’s told hey, you have a big deal heart condition, you only have a year to live. And Valancy is like you know what? Screw it, [GINA LAUGHS] and see ya. And she decides that she is going to do something else and just live a little bit before she dies. Which ends with her proposing marriage to a kind man who’s looked at kinda askance from the local community. You know, you’ve said several times that you don’t want, like, you didn’t like the little bit of romance in a book, this is a romance, but it’s a L.M. Montgomery, 1926 romance, and you like Anne of Green Gables.
GINA: Oh, yes.
ANNE: I mean, I assumed you don’t have objections to like Gilbert Blythe and Anne Shirley during what you said.
GINA: Oh, no.
GINA: No, it’s just when it turns into like a romantic comedy that I don’t go for as much, but this book sounds really great. It sounds just like everything that I like in one, especially because she’s like forget that, I’m just going to start doing exactly what I want now. I’ve been …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Get off my back, I am out of here.
GINA: I know. I’ve been clustered in this house with a dark, horrible curtains for too long, like let me live my life.
ANNE: All right. I really think that you’re going to enjoy that. I love that it’s already on your shelves and that is The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery. Also for you, I think The Pat of Silver Bush series would be right up your alley. Not a lot happens, but it’s the writing that you have mentioned that you enjoy. Also Jane of Lantern Hill is a good one that is not nearly as well known as the Anne series and the Emily series, her best known ones. I think those are both finding or resurrecting from your shelves if they’re already around.
GINA: It’s so funny that you say that because I just went to a used bookstore in Massachusetts like a few weeks ago and I actually got all those books you just talked about.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so funny. Well I think they’re good ones for you. I’m glad they caught your eyes. Maybe it’s meant to be.
GINA: The covers are so vintage and so adorable that I’m like I’m just going to take all these, even though … because they were like a dollar a piece, and I was like I don’t know what they’re about, but I’m just going to grab them and I’m so glad I did because now they’re already there.
ANNE: That’s excellent. I’m glad to hear it. Oh, but we got more ground to cover, Gina.
ANNE: Okay. How do you feel reading like contemporary middle grade?
GINA: I am definitely open to it. Like when someone says contemporary, I’m like ah, but um, but yeah. Let’s go for it.
ANNE: Okay. So the book I’m thinking of is by Kelly Yang. It’s called Front Desk. Is this one you know?
GINA: Oh, no, not at all.
ANNE: Well it’s fairly new. It just came out in 2018. The words Kelly Yang uses to describe it are that it’s emotional, honest, funny, important, and accessible. It’s called Front Desk because, you know, it’s a middle grade novel from the perspective of a 10 year old girl who lives in a motel. Her immigrant parents clean the rooms and she manages the front desk while they do it. Something else important about her setup and her parents' job is that her parents hide immigrants because they have the keys, and they’ve been letting immigrants stay in the empty rooms for free. But they’ve been doing this without the knowledge of the cranky motel owner. Cranky might not be the right word. He just might be plain old mean. She’s an essential part of her parents’ plan, and also she wants to be a writer, and that’s a dream she often indulges and works on while she’s sitting at the front desk.
ANNE: My like oh my gosh, Gina, you have to read this column in my brain thinks this has so many factors that you enjoy in a book like it is middle grade, it could be that afternoon reading. Kelly Yang is phenomenally intelligent. I think she graduated from Harvard law like at age 20.
ANNE: I know. Like her personal history is head spinning. She was born in China. She grew up in LA. She went to college at something like the age of 13 which is how she got out of law school at age 20.
GINA: Oh my goodness.
ANNE: She’s writing about issues that are hard, but she’s doing it from the perspective of a 10 year old so I think the way the hardship is addressed, that this could still be a feel good story for you. Like the family clearly has experienced a lot of hardship and the people they know are continuing to do so in really intense ways even while her family situation is not like all, you know, rainbows and unicorns and all that. Just watching Mia make friends with the patrons who come in and develop new relationships with her students at school, the love in her own family, I think could just make … I think it could be huggable.
GINA: It sounds like it could be and I love that she sits out front and talks to people and then she also writes in her spare time ‘cause I also eventually want to write a children’s book, so I love that this is like what she does while she helps her family out. Yeah, definitely a great choice for me. I can’t wait.
ANNE: Well the cover is precious. It’s a 10 year old girl in her sneakers and jeans on a telephone with an actual cord.
GINA: Oh my gosh. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And a pen in her hand. You can see, like, the little brochure, you can see the brochure rack next to her. It’s adorable.
GINA: Oh my goodness. That sounds awesome. I especially like things that are vintage, like a phone with a cord. That brings back memories. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That was Front Desk by Kelly Yang. And then I want to end with one that also has a fair share of hardship, but I think that the cheerful, witty, hopeful tone throughout may win the day for you. If I didn’t think so, we would not be talking about it. But the book I’m thinking of is The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John. She’s an Australian writer. Is this one you know?
GINA: No, not at all.
ANNE: This book first came out in 1993, but it was just reissued in the United States late winter, early spring in a special gift edition and the cover is really sweet and fun. Women in black dresses on a red background. You mentioned that you like reading books about people’s relationships. This has that in spades. So the women in black, they’re all employees at F.G. Goodes department store.
GINA: Oh. Yes.
ANNE: They work in the ladies cocktail frocks department and they have to wear their black dresses to go on their job. It first came out in ’93 but it’s set during the holiday season in 1950s Sydney. And every woman is dealing with her own stuff at home. Dating, marital issues, friendship issues, you know, everybody’s working with their stuff and then they come to work and they talk about it. It’s smart. It’s clever. And it just has this persistently, it’s not snarky. But it’s like a winky tone that I think you may enjoy. It’s got a wide cast of characters without overwhelming you. There’s a woman falling in love with a man. [LAUGHS] And there’s another moment where a woman is falling in love but it’s with a dress.
GINA: Ooh. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So that’s kinda fun. And like we said in the beginning of our conversation talking about Daddy-Long-Legs, everybody who deserves one gets their happy ending. I imagine that this felt nostalgic even in 1993 when it first came out, but it does feel very much so right now. Listeners, I don’t know who watches the TV show, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but the book has been compared to this show I think because some of the episodes were set in a 1950s department store, but I think this has a clever kind of writing and just the right amount of whimsy that may make this one a fun one for you.
GINA: You know, as soon as you started talking and describing it, it brought me to think about the show The Paradise. I don’t know if you’ve seen that.
ANNE: No, I don’t know it.
GINA: Oh, it’s beautiful, and it’s also about all of these women and some men who work in a department store called The Paradise. I love that series so much that when you started talking about this book, I was like if it’s anything like this show, I’m going to love it so much because they talk about dresses and relationships and all the customs and rules that happened inside of the department store. Ah, I’m so excited to read this book.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad to hear it. That was The Women in Black by Madeline St. John. Okay, Gina, we covered a lot of ground I think.
ANNE: We talked about Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster, and also the 2013 update Dear Mr. Knightly by Katherine Reay, we talked about The Blue Castle and also the Pat books by L.M. Montgomery, Front Desk by Kelly Yang, and then finally The Women in Black by Madeline St. John, of those books, some of which I know you have in your house right now, what do you think you’ll read next?
GINA: I knew you were going to ask me that but I feel so torn because I wish I could read them all at the same time, [LAUGHS] but I think because I have The Blue Castle already on my shelf, I might start with that one, but I think I’ll go to the Daddy-Long-Legs and then Women in Black next. I am so excited to have these books to look forward to.
ANNE: Well I’m excited that you’re excited, and I can’t wait to hear what you think.
GINA: Thank you so much, Anne.
ANNE: Oh, it’s my pleasure. Thanks for talking books with me today.
GINA: Thank you. This was such a treat.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Gina, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/261 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. Follow Gina on Instagram @ginahouse and @babsbelovedbooks, B-A-B-S, Babs beloved books.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
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:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
• Agatha Christie (try And Then There Were None)
• Stephen King (try The Shining)
• Lightning by Dean Koontz
• The Dean’s Watch by Elizabeth Goudge
• Archangel (Samaria #1) by Sharon Shinn
• Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
• The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan
• Green Dolphin Street by Elizabeth Goudge
• Becoming by Michelle Obama
• Peace is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
• Energy Medicine: Balancing Your Body’s Energies for Optimal Health, Joy, and Vitality by Donna Eden
• Snow & Rose by Emily Winfield Martin
• Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster
• Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay
• The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery
• Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery
• Pat of Silver Bush by L.M. Montgomery
• Front Desk by Kelly Yang
• The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John
• WSIRN Ep 181: Taking your reading life from good to great, w/Holli Peterson
• TV show The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
• TV show The Paradise
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