WSIRN Ep 262: Books that deliver a little depth, a little distraction

Today’s guest tells a familiar story: he loved reading as a kid, but as an adult without a Scholastic book fair to look forward to, he fell into the habit of rereading or staying in his “safe zone” of sci-fi and fantasy. Geologist Max LeMoine needed just the right book to pull him out of his reading rut.

Thanks to a birthday gift from his wife Katie, an avid reader herself, Max found some books that helped him branch out and discover new things about his reading taste. Now, he’s eager to uncover more titles that are outside of his reading comfort zone. So today, I’m recommending books with depth that also offer distraction from everyday life, books with immersive world-building, and books that Max and Katie might enjoy reading together. 

Let’s get to it. 

What Should I Read Next #262: Books that deliver a little depth, a little distraction with Max LeMoine

MAX: If you need recommendations, I will give them to you. I try not to do the unsolicited because then people don’t listen. [BOTH LAUGH]


ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 262.

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, now is the time of year where I’m wondering what is the perfect way to tell my friends and loved ones that I’m thinking of them that’s small enough to fit in a reasonably sized box for shipping?

Of course a book is a great gift that’s just the right size. But a digital gift works just as well. This year consider giving the readers in your life a membership to the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. This is where we gather online for community, classes, and conversation.

And we have wonderful plans for all three coming up this winter including author talks and book discussions, classes that’ll help you create the perfect 2021 reading plan for you, and fun conversations like the best books of the year with the whole Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next team.

Gift memberships are available for 3, 6 or 12 months and include access to all of our live events, all of our previous author talks and classes, and all the book talk you can handle. Choose to email your recipient a confirmation of the purchase or keep it a surprise and have the confirmation come to you to share in a card, on a bookmark, or with a book you’re giving as well.

Find out more and get your gift membership at

Today’s guest tells a familiar story: he loved reading as a kid, but as an adult without a Scholastic book fair to look forward to, he fell into the habit of rereading or staying in his “safe zone” of sci-fi and fantasy. Geologist Max LeMoine needed just the right book to pull him out of his reading rut. Thanks to a birthday gift from his wife Katie, an avid reader herself, Max found some books that helped him branch out and discover new things about his reading taste.

Now, he’s eager to uncover more titles that are outside of his reading comfort zone. So today, I’m recommending books with depth that also offer distraction from everyday life, books with immersive world-building, and books that Max and Katie might enjoy reading together.

Let’s get to it.

Max, welcome to the show.


MAX: Thanks for having me. I’m excited.

ANNE: Well I’m excited too. And also it was not lost on us at What Should I Read Next HQ that when you filled out the submission form, we’re so glad you did, but what you said was honestly, I’d love my wife be the one you talk to.

MAX: It is absolutely true. I don’t think I could convince her to come on this show, but she is the person who got me listening to this show and into books again 100%.

ANNE: Oh, that’s so good, and hi, Katie. You’re with us in spirit. [MAX LAUGHS] But I really noticed as you talked about your own reading history, you did talk about the significance of reading not only in your relationship which is obvious, but also to your own reading life and told us so much just heartwarming and also just really fun and practical history about what that has looked like over the years.


MAX: This morning I was listening to another one of your podcasts and I started getting more and more excited about talking about books that I love because I realized that I do have strong feelings about books that I love and I am starting to know which books I like and not.

ANNE: From what you described, it sounds like maybe your wife Katie knew what you loved before you did.

MAX: Oh, yeah. No, she very much knew what I liked. I … My reading life I think like a lot of other peoples where as a kid, I did a lot of reading. My mom was very much into it, Scholastic book fairs were a big deal in our house when they came around.

ANNE: Ohh. Big sigh. Big grin.

MAX: [LAUGHS] Yeah. It was absolute tradition in our house to always be reading, and Battle Of The Books. Then I moved away, went away from that somewhat. I still read, but I more tended to really stick in a safe zone or reread. I was a big rereader. I would say my safe zone now is possibly a little different than it was, very much some sci-fi and fantasy which even into kids books, I’ve been reading the Nevermoor series and loving them.

I really have enjoyed with my wife, her bringing me into books that I didn’t think I would like as much. Before we were even going out and I lived in Colorado, she lived in Chicago for my birthday, she sent me four books. Ready Player One, which is a book that since then I’ve probably read five times and then Stephen King’s 11/22/63 which was a thicker, intimidating looking book but once again very safe zone, very imaginative and can get into the adventure, and The Shadow of the Wind. That one was probably the one I think that she had the most hope for me because it is outside of my comfort zone.

ANNE: It is. So how did that go?

MAX: That was the toughest one. I was reading it .... As I was reading it, my dad passed, and I put it aside for a while and then picked it up again. But it was probably the one that affected me the most partially because I think it was probably the best written book, but also the emotional response that I had with it.

ANNE: Oh, that’s so interesting.


MAX: Shadow of the Wind was definitely the quietest of the books and looking at plot lines, it didn’t take you on a truly grand adventure compared to the other ones and I really liked that about it. It brought you into a world and described it so well, really made you feel like you lived in that world for a little bit. Got to know how little corners and coziness in it. I picked it up again after a couple years and I finished it actually right before we went to Barcelona, where the book is based.

ANNE: Oh, I’m so jealous! What was that like?

MAX: Oh, it was so nice. I mean, it was actually really fun to be able to because she had read the books years ago but be able to walk around like the gothic section of the city. For me to enjoy it I think also brought memories of the book back for her and she could enjoy it again too.

ANNE: Ah, that sounds amazing. But you put it down when your dad died. How long did you put it down for?

MAX: I put it down for about two years.

ANNE: So I’ve read this story and I’m trying to remember what about it could have made it so hard to read at that time. My dad just died recently, and it really altered my reading life significantly and actually probably still is. It hasn’t been that long. And I’m just interested in hearing with this specific book, like how that changed things for you?

MAX: I don’t necessarily think that … There is the father and the son. And almost the … like the boy, the main character, almost creates a father/son relationship with for me, the kinda homeless guy that they take in, but I think for me it was just more the timing of it that I was into the book at the time that picking up reminded me of that exact time again.

ANNE: When you picked it up again, was that because you knew you were going to Barcelona? Or did it just happen to end up being close timing?

MAX: I knew that we were going to Barcelona. Our honeymoon. But I also had been wanting to pick it up and read it for a while because of that next step in the grieving process because I had realized that was the reason that I wasn’t reading and then also my wife picks out amazing books and I wanted to finish one that she really liked. So. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Yeah. I’m so glad you did, and that you enjoyed it. Fun fact, that book is featured as a love and as a guest wow, that book did not work for me.


MAX: I could absolutely see that.

ANNE: So, Max, it sounds like your wife Katie has given you a ton of really wonderful spot on book picks. Does that go both ways?

MAX: Oh, she is the hardest person to pick books out for.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sorry I’m laughing because my husband Will was just saying this about me yesterday.

MAX: Oh, yeah, and she knows that she is an incredibly hard person to pick books out for and embraces it I think. The first books that I bought for her were completely not new books. Those are always the dangerous ones because she is on bookstagram so much, booktube, this podcast, other places that she knows all the new books before I have any inkling about them. So the first book that I ever got for her were cool copies of Pride and Prejudice, or illustrated ones, or books that were a little bit different.

ANNE: That sounds like a great strategy. How’d that work out?

MAX: That strategy worked out really well for a while, but it’s also a little tough to always find those books. And I went a little overboard. Our first celebration for her birthday when we were together, we were still long distance and we flew out to Seattle to meet and I had bought her so many books that she couldn’t bring them back in her suitcase, and I had to bring some of them back with me and then deliver them to her at another time.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Like how many are we talking about?

MAX: 12 probably? And some of them were much larger than your normal book being like an illustrated Brothers Grimms’ tale.

ANNE: Are those still on your shelves today?

MAX: They’re around someplace but they’re definitely … They’re fun books but they’re not ones that are ooh, I really want to read this book. Those have been tougher. Those … for gifts for her absolutely used, one of our local bookstores and their recommendations.

ANNE: Now it’s harder to pick books for her, but I mean do you feel like you need to do that? That’s a weird way to ask that question.


MAX: I do. I really do think that I need to do that because everybody knows that she’s really hard to pick for and other people are intimidated in her life and so if I don’t pick out at least a couple books, I know a couple years ago she had a Christmas where she didn’t get a novel and she got other great gifts but she was a little disappointed that she didn’t get one novel, so I always make sure to at least get her one.

ANNE: Okay, so she really would like to get a book gift.

MAX: Oh, yes. I think that if she became really good friends with you and you just gave her good book gifts every year, like lifetime friends.

ANNE: [WHISPERS] Katie, we could talk. [MAX LAUGHS] But let’s talk about Katie giving books. So it sounds like it’s been really meaningful in your relationship that she has been able to pick out titles that have ended up being so perfect for you, that she knew they would work for you before you did.

MAX: I’ve actually used her power of knowing what kind of book to give to people, giving to other people as well. Like if there’s even someone that is possibly going to be like, you know, I haven’t read anything for a while, I am now that friend that’s like if you need recommendations, I will give them to you or I will give some. I try not to do the unsolicited because then people don’t listen.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, I found that to be true as well.

MAX: Yup, yup. You know two of my friends right after I had read Ready Player One, I bought them each a book, gave it to them, and these are people that do not read and have now gotten back into reading because of that. I really think it’s just like you need that one book to kinda bring you back into that memory of the joy of reading. Once I got that and I’ve noticed once my friends have gotten that, then it just opens that door for like oh yeah, I do like reading. What else is out there?

ANNE: So these days, how do you decide what to read next?

MAX: I wish I was bolder about that. Deciding what to read next is always the toughest thing, and that’s for me or Katie, who reads a ton more than I do, but when we get to a point that we don’t have a, we’ve just finished a book, both of us are almost like scared to go on. It’s like oh, what do we do now? Sometimes I pick out four or five books that we think she might like and then we either read the synopsis or the first couple paragraphs. Oh, is this something that is readable and engaging? Like what kind of voice is it and if that’s fitting for what she wants to read at that time, that’s how we figure out for her. For me, it’s tough. I definitely go with either her recommendation or something that I know that I’ve already liked before. And then it also gets into how busy am I with school? Do I want a book that takes up a little bit more thought or time or do I want a book that I don’t have to think as much about?


ANNE: Tell me a little bit about what school looks like for you right now.

MAX: So I’m back in school in earth science as a geologist. My school is half a block away from us. Maybe. We moved last year and didn’t need it to be next to the school but it just worked out perfectly, so for a while I got to walk there every day and they have done such a good job with the pandemic. 9% of their classes are in person. Everything else is online. Unfortunately, I am absolutely part of that 9% for two of my classes because I need to actually have rocks in my hands to be able to look and check them out so I like to say that all day long I go to school and I play with rocks.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] And when you get out of school and you’re done learning about playing with rocks, what do you hope to do? My uncle’s a geologist so I have an idea of what one path can look like, but I have no idea how normative that is or what other people do.

MAX: [LAUGHS] There’s a lot of different paths with it. One side would be hydrology. So study of water, and I like that idea ‘cause it is so important to our future and it’s also a job that anywhere’s going to need a hydrologist. Anywhere needs people that can study and make sure that water’s getting to everyone else okay. Most likely I’m going to try to do something in environmental protection. Making sure that companies are doing the right things.

ANNE: How much longer do you have?

MAX: I have about a year left.

ANNE: So we’ll know that your reading life has this going on in the background, or the foreground. I guess that depends on how you want to look at it, but that’s up to you, Max, [MAX LAUGHS] for at least another year. But it’s always nice to have books to look forward to. We can do some heavier stuff as well.

MAX: Oh yeah. And then something to distract and not have me thinking about school is always… is always good, and that’s part of what I want to be better as a reader is read things that aren’t just in my comfort zone. Right now on my Kindle, I am rereading the second Morrigan Crow Nevermoor book because the next one’s coming out pretty soon, but it’s not a challenging read. Whereas Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha, that one was more challenging but yet still as engaging and it was just that Katie given it to me. I knew it was going to be good so I was able to dive in without trepidation.


ANNE: How much does y’all’s reading taste overlap? When she hands a book to you, is it necessarily because she loved it? Or because she thinks you will love it?

MAX: I think that there’s definitely an overlap with that. We are definitely, if we were going to be a venn diagram, our sliver that we overlap wouldn’t be too big but it’s definitely there. When she hands me a book, it is definitely going to be because she thinks I will like it but a lot of times she liked. Last year she had me read Miracle Creek. I am so happy that she did. That’s one … looking through my books of the year, which we always do at the end, looking at oh, what books did I really like and what books am I proud of reading too? And that was one of them that stuck out of wow, that’s a really good one. I’m really happy that I read that.

ANNE: Which is always a great way to feel.

MAX: ANd especially that we were able to share books too. That’s always my most favorite is sharing books with her.

ANNE: Okay. So a little bit depth, a little bit distraction is just fine by you.


ANNE: All right, let’s do this. I’m ready to hear more about your books. Are you ready to dig in?

MAX: I’m ready.


ANNE: Max, 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 will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these?


MAX: It’s a combination of books that I have read recently that have really affected me and I have really enjoyed and books that I’ve read maybe a few years back, but have stuck with me or have a specific memory. And then let’s face it, I’ve also thought about what books do I want to be seen that I have read [BOTH LAUGH] or read, what books do I want to share with and have them say, oh, he’s read this. That looks good.

ANNE: Okay. So that being said, what did you choose first?

MAX: I chose The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern.

ANNE: Okay. So tell me about why this worked for you.

MAX: I thought this was just one of the most magical books that I have read recently. Her first book, The Night Circus, I really enjoyed. That was a Katie recommendation. Very fun and exciting to have a book like that where you know what’s going on in the book and you see the plot moving forward, but you don’t really know what’s going on. You don’t really know what the book is about necessarily or what it’s driving towards. And I really like that a lot. It is a book about stories, and I think that is absolutely magical and wonderful. I also really like this book a lot because I know that people either loved it or hated it on Goodreads, and I always think those books are interesting.

ANNE: Yes, what is it about those that really get our attention?

MAX: I think it’s always that if you know that other people didn’t like a book that you can feel special about finding something in it that you really liked.


ANNE: So that was The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. The most magical book. I like that. Max, what did you choose next?

MAX: I chose a book called A Long Way To Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Another Katie pick. I have very distinct fond memories of this book. It’s one of those that if I were to say what the plot of the book is, it’s interesting but not that interesting. This is not one of those books that is necessarily about getting from point A to point B. It’s about that journey along the way. I love the world building. It is in the future and in space. Our main character is new to a ship that is basically working and doing road construction out in space. It’s a character study book I would say, but it involves aliens and so you’re able to still learn about these characters and what makes them great, fun characters you’ll remember, but then also they might be a lizard that stands six feet tall.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so something I’m noticing is that it sounds like this book or anything by Becky Chambers would be squarely in your sci-fi and fantasy wheelhouse, but your wife picked this one for you.

MAX: Yup. And we read this one at the same time. I was traveling at the time, so I distinctly remember being in Thailand, going out to eat at a fancy restaurant, but just being glued to my phone the entire time ‘cause I was [ANNE LAUGHS] so close to finishing the book that I couldn’t not read it wherever I went.

ANNE: That’s a good sign. Okay, that was The Long Way To Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers. Okay, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?

MAX: I cheated some and said His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman.

ANNE: We’ll allow that for a series. Okay. So tell me, what is it about this series, and also how many times have you read it? ‘Cause I’m thinking it’s more than one or two.

MAX: Oh, yes. My mom found this book for me. She heard it on NPR.


MAX: And I really wished that Katie and her would have been able to meet and hang out ‘cause they would have been best friends. So I remember finding the first two of these books and having to wait for the third one to come out. And I grew up reading The Chronicles of Narnia and at some point I read those again and kinda realized that they weren’t quite for me whereas Philip Pullman's books were more for me. The overarching themes that were involved in the two different books, I thought was so fascinating just the world that he built I thought was so much fun.


ANNE: I have never read these.

MAX: They are really fun, and it’s continuing too, so he has the first three books, The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass.

ANNE: Which those have been out forever. I didn’t know the series was continuing.

MAX: Yeah, so he has another series called The Book of Dust which is going to be a three part prequel and the first two books are already out.

ANNE: That was the His Dark Materials series by Phillip Pullman. Max, how did you choose the book that was not right for you?

MAX: I chose The Killing Floor by Lee Child. And this is the first book in the Jack Reacher series which has definitely twenty-some books but possibly more, I’m not even sure. I read it because I watched the Jack Reacher movie, and I was like oh, those seem entertaining. I’ll check them out. And I just couldn’t get on board with it. The main character made mistakes in the book but was pretty faultless. Could do anything, any challenge that came up, it was just I can handle this, and I didn’t like how the other characters just instantly liked him for some reason which I found a disconnect with that and then also how there’s no real chance that everything was going to get wrapped up into a nice, neat little bow at the end.

ANNE: Max, we haven’t talked a lot about the individual characters in the books you’re reading, but the way you described why The Killing Floor didn’t work for you has me wondering if watching a character really develop over the course of a story is something that tends to contribute to a really satisfying reading experience for you.

MAX: I would definitely say so. I tend to enjoy books more that aren’t necessarily just one main character, that I get to know more of them and that are well rounded and change and are definitely dynamic characters. I usually find that if a book has a static character they’re usually a very good character that I like or all the other characters around them are dynamic and that points out their staticness.

ANNE: Wow. You could pass for an English teacher. [MAX LAUGHS] Okay, so looking at your books. Like there is definitely a good deal of action and like really robust plot in some of these titles. So that would be a fair description of the Jack Reacher books. He’s executing the action.


MAX: Yes.

ANNE: That’s the point. We don’t need to peer into the depths of his soul, at least not in book one. But you like to in your books.

MAX: Yeah. I want to know why someone’s doing something. If I don’t find out why someone’s doing something, I at least want it to have built to such a cliffhanger that it leads me wondering like why don’t I know that?

ANNE: Yeah or sometimes like you said the story is that all this stuff happens to a character and they still are unable or refuse to change, and that is the story.

MAX: There is a Kurt Vonnegut quote or Kurt Vonnegut class that he taught at Iowa for the reading workshop that looked at story arcs and how there’s these different arcs that go through all our stories and people are start at the top and then reach a hard chip and then end up even better than they were before or … And he points out some weird ones, like Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis where a character starts out somewhere towards the top and everything goes downhill and never comes back.

And the most interesting one I thought was Hamlet. He is one of the most static characters you ever see but so much story goes on around him that pulls him in different directions and he stays firmly rooted where he is. And that’s what makes it such a good story. It’s so different because this isn’t a character that changes or he learns things that just things happen around him, and he doesn’t do well. [ANNE LAUGHS] And that’s what makes that such a good story.

ANNE: Weirdly. I don’t say this a lot, I’ve had Hamlet on the brain because my daughter’s reading it for high school English right now. I’ll tell her about our conversation. She’ll probably say oh mom, not that again. [MAX LAUGH] Okay. That’s really interesting and it’s something I’m definitely going to keep in mind. Max, what have you been reading lately?

MAX: One book that I just finished and absolutely loved was Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha. That was a surprise one for me. Katie knows that a certain booktuber and I have very similar tastes, so anything he recommends she will get for me.

ANNE: Ooh, that’s a great discovery. Who is it? Do you know?


MAX: The Poptimist. He is wonderful and interesting, a Korean-Canadian guy.

ANNE: And he recommended Your House Will Pay and that was a win for you?

MAX: That was a big win for me. It was a very timely book and so I think it’s gotten a lot of attention. It ties together protests of what’s going on right now, also California and LA in 1992 with those riots that happened after Rodney King, so very timely book but good story, great characters. I really enjoyed that one. Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky is another one that I just read.

ANNE: What a title. I don’t know that one. Tell me about it.

MAX: So this one, real excited for. It is a book and a series that is an offshoot of Rick Riordan’s books. And Katie introduced me to Rick Riordan books and by introduce me I mean I was organizing her classroom library and saw that she had a ton of them ‘cause her kids loved them. I tore through every one of them. Greek myths was something that I loved as a kid and I had lots of books about them when I was a kid of the actual myths, and so seeing these stories brought me back and I thought they were just so delightful for learning about those myths but still being adventurous for kids today.

He has a new series which is wonderful that takes stories from different cultures and basically makes a Rick Riordan book out of them. This was … I forget the author’s name, but instead of dealing with Greek Gods in this book, we had characters like John Henry or Brer Rabbit that were an American Black culture combined with African culture ‘cause Anansi is one of the characters. It’s fun. It’s adventurous. It’s Gods and characters that I know but didn’t know as well as I did and have got me to look them up and the more books that I think can be made like that for kids, the more times that kids can see themselves or different people in writing, I am so excited for. And this one I thought was great.

ANNE: So we want a little bit depth, perhaps a little bit distraction. Fantasy and sci-fi is your home base but that’s not where you want to camp out.

MAX: Whenever I look at my books, the ones that have been a challenge to me have been the ones that I think are the most rewarding. So definitely a little bit of depth. Staying away from my comfort zone, but I also really do like being able to immerse myself in a different story or a different world.

ANNE: Should I draw on Katie’s taste as well, like the books that she’s chosen for you that you’ve both enjoyed?


MAX: Oh, that would be wonderful.

ANNE: Okay. We’ll talk about these and we’ll see if anything sounds promising. I’m also wondering this isn’t the only way to decide, but I now have a healthy list of books I think would be right for you, help me narrow it down. If we’re not looking for science fiction and fantasy necessarily, definitely not all three, what are you interested in exploring? Like you’ve mentioned some literary fiction, you’ve mentioned some mystery. You mentioned how much you enjoy reading about the natural world. Is there anything specific you’re in the mood for right now?

MAX: The natural world definitely would be something that I would be interested in. It’s obviously an interest of mine. I actually seen a post of yours the other day talking about urban planning books and how your niche shelf is urban planning books. It got me thinking about what my niche shelf would be and that would definitely be I think geology type books being what I’m studying, which I think is a great sign that I actually really like what I’m studying. [LAUGHS] For example the N.K. Jemisin Broken Earth series was basically a sci-fi geology book, so that was perfect for me before.

ANNE: You know, I’ve read those books and that is not the characterization that I assigned in my head.

MAX: Because it’s sneaky geology. It’s fantastic. All the names are like specific rock names that you wouldn’t know if you didn’t know geology. She sneaks so much in there. It’s wonderful.

ANNE: That is fascinating. Is geology just about the rocks? Is caves geology? This is what I want to know.

MAX: Caves is absolutely geology.

ANNE: All right. I’m a little scared but you know this a lot more than I do [MAX LAUGHS] but I think we can work with this.


ANNE: You loved The Starless Sea, The Long Way to Small Angry Planet, and His Dark Materials series. Not for you was The Killing Floor by Lee Child. Among other things you want to see some purposeful characterization. Recently you loved Your House Will Pay, Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky, also the Broken Earth trilogy. You told us in your submission how much you loved Fredrik Backman, so I filed that away in my brain as well. And books about rocks or the natural world are a bonus.


MAX: Yes.

ANNE: Well let’s start with that Richard Riordan series. [MAX LAUGHS] So this is by Rebecca Roanhorse, who was asked to write this story for that Rick Riordan series. One where he is deliberately inviting authors who are able to authentically portray different experiences and cultures in really great stories. So Rebecca Roanhorse is a contemporary Black author, we talked about her adult work on the podcast before, she lived for several years in the Navajo nation where she actually clerked at the Navajo Supreme Court so that’s an interesting little factoid that I don’t know that you gather from reading her fantasy novels. She currently lives in New Mexico with her Navajo husband.

So this is a middle grade novel, which isn’t the first place I’d go for to you, although honestly I was thinking about Slay by Brittany Morris. Like it's about a teen who invents a video game that catches on and there’s a bunch of like secrets involved and bullying … Have you read this book?


MAX: I have not. But I’m definitely interested already.

ANNE: Ooh. It’s squarely in your fantasy/sci-fi wheelhouse. Fast reading YA novel, really well done, lots of fun. I wonder if it wouldn’t like fit in and feel at home on Katie’s beautiful Instagram page. Y’all can decide together if that’s for you.


ANNE: But I do think it sounds really promising. But this Rebecca Roanhorse novel. It’s called Race to the Sun. It just came out the very beginning of this year and it’s about a seventh grader who knows that her Navajo gift is that she is able to detect monsters like her monster could before her, and this comes up in really horrible seventh grade fashion when she’s in the game at the end, she’s taking the big shot, but she’s so distracted by the kinda creepy, well dressed dude in the suit in the bleachers. Like why he’s wearing a suit in the bleachers? That’s not right. But he has these eyes that kinda terrify her and make her think that something is very, very wrong here, but he is super interested in Nizhoni and her brother Max. He wants to know all about their heritage and their family and specifically the legend of the hero twins. Then she comes home from school. The scary dude is there. Turns out he’s her father’s boss. Nothing seems like it’s going well, but nobody around her, especially her dad, seems to perceive that this dude is seriously creepy. When the plot kicks into gear, you mentioned you read a book where all of sudden there was like what, a six foot tall slug or something scary like that?

MAX: Yeah, six foot tall lizard who …

ANNE: Lizard.

MAX: Sweetest character ever.

ANNE: That’s so interesting because in this book, Nizhoni is forced to go on a journey to save her family through the glittering world and she encounters all these mythical obstacles. Roanhorse is grounding much of her story in the tradition of the Diné people, but her companion for this journey, I’m sorry to say, is not a six foot tall talking lizard but is an actual horned toad. Her stuffed animal who comes to life and is basically her spirit guide through this story. So this book is a lot of fun. Girl vs. monsters rooted in history and real heritage in the same series with the same intentions as other books you have really enjoyed. How does that sound?


MAX: It sounds great. It sounds like the beginning is absolutely a Rick Riordan book. It is normal kid pulled into a weird world, offered adventures. That sounds fun.

ANNE: I am glad to hear it. Okay. Next up you know, you have not mentioned nonfiction books, Max, but how do you feel about that?

MAX: When I read a good nonfiction book I really enjoy that is the probably the weakest shelf on my bookcase, and so I’d loved to hear some more.

ANNE: I’m thinking about a geology book which is the reason this came to mind. When I was reading it I didn’t think you know what I want to read about? Geology. But as you’ve started describing the kind of you love to read books about rocks, this is totally it. [MAX LAUGHS] I actually discussed it on the episode with our goodreads friends called “good reads with good friends” back in July. It’s called Underland: a Deep Time Journey. It’s by Robert Macfarland.

This is a long book. The paperback’s almost 500 pages. Macfarland’s a British nature writer. In this book he is taking us beneath the surface of the earth and exploring things like intricate caves. And I have to tell you, I’m not extremely claustrophobic but reading his descriptions of going below the earth and winding through these tight spaces and skinny caves and tunnel cliffs. There is one harrowing episode that ends in tragedy right near the beginning. Readers should probably know that.

He’s exploring not just the geology itself but also what it means to us as people, like its important, its significance, how it plays in history. So even as he’s exploring the land beneath the earth. That’s not how you say that. Even how he’s exploring the underground, he’s also reflecting on things like burial practices across time and cultures. Hidden underground cities and what they were like then and what they can mean to us now. The lakes and rivers that are underground and therefore hardly ever seen by anyone except people like himself and when I say like himself, he’s basically, he’s a professor but he has tagged along on many of these arduous explorations for the purpose of writing this book.

Literally the prose is really, really beautiful, like I would call this literary nonfiction, and I think the subject matter and also the way it's told which is so well in sequences of stories. There’s often like a bit of adventurous exploration followed by a lot of reflection on what it means and what it meant to the people then, what it means to us now before moving on to the next cycle of exploration and philosophical reflection. I don’t know, you tell me, how does this sound?


MAX: I think it sounds absolutely wonderful. As far as a geology book goes, it’s funny I was expecting the last one I read was The Ends of the World. The popular geology books these days are extinction geology books because we are arguably going through one right now. That’s what people are writing about but also I think is exciting. This one sounds to me more interesting. This one almost sounds anthropology/geology which is fascinating.

ANNE: Okay. Next up is a book that you wouldn’t necessarily know plugs into that interest of yours. This book comes out in the U.S. on February 2nd. I know lots of readers don’t already know this is coming out, are going to be real happy to hear it’s the new Jane Harper novel. She has a new one coming out.

MAX: Ooh, yeah. I think I’m on my unfinished but still reading is The Lost Man, but let’s see, The Dry and … What was the other one? Force of Nature.

ANNE: Okay. I have to say I love Jane Harper. I did not particularly enjoy The Lost Man. So I picked up The Survivors with a little bit of trepidation. Oh my gosh, it’s so good, and I think it might be specifically good for you. Let me tell you why. This may not be obvious in the reviews because they’re not reading with this geological lens, but you are and I was so creeped out by the scenes that we’re going to talk about that I remember deeply what happened. So this novel is set in a nearly deserted coastal town in Tasmania that is emptying out. The old people are moving away, the new people aren’t staying either. It’s called Evelyn’s Bay. Teeny, tiny, everybody knows each other and everybody’s business.

MAX: Sounds like a Jane Harper novel already.

ANNE: It does, doesn’t it? So at the start of the story there’s a young man, he’s maybe 30, young … Does that make me sound old if I call him a young man? Okay. [MAX LAUGHS] At the start of the story, there’s a man who’s coming home to visit his parents. He’s come home with his wife and his small child, his name is Kieran. Coming home is hard because it reminds him of everything terrible that happened to him in that community. His father has dementia and it’s much worse than the last time he saw him. His mother is not in a good way and they never forgiven him for the death of his brother 12 years before. Because of the circumstances in which it happened, it was a horrible accident. It’s an accident that his parents have chosen to cope with by blaming Kieran. And he feels like you know what? They might be right. So that happened 12 years prior to the beginning of the story.

When he and his wife and baby are home visiting, another girl dies by the water, and so it brings back all these memories before. It throws the community right now into chaos. Evelyn’s Bay is this coastal community that has very specific geological formations that affect the community, the local tourism, and boating industries. There’s a series of caves right on the coast that as a kid, Kieran and his pals and his brother loved exploring. You could go in there. You could get lost in them. They spent a lot of time mapping them. He spent a lot of time going to the caves meeting his girlfriend where it was very difficult to reach. So many people didn’t want to go through the caves at low tide because if high tide came, well what his brother told him was you go in there, and the tide comes in, you are never coming out. It’s so spooky and eerie and atmospheric and stormy.


MAX: Right there I just want to put in like dun dun dunnn.

ANNE: Oh, yeah. So that was some massive foreshadowing. There’s some bad things that are going down in those caves. I think you may really enjoy reading about said bad things and the fascinating caves in which they happen. How does that sound?

MAX: [LAUGHS] That sounds great. I mean any Jane Harper book is definitely an entertaining one. Her landscapes are for how bleak they are, they are richly described and so this sounds great.

ANNE: Ooh, bleak and richly described, I really like that. Also something I really enjoyed in this particular Jane Harper book is the way she probes these complex and painful relationships amongst the family members and also amongst the communities. And she explores how tragedy alters the courses of everyone’s lives, but not necessarily in the way those people, or the readers might have expected. It’s a good one. I’m really excited for everybody to read it. Also we talked to her in Book Club years ago, she is a charming human being.

MAX: Oh, that’s wonderful.

ANNE: Which is nice to know about the people who write you books, especially who write you really dark and broody books. Okay, so not to overemphasize their survivors, because we did talk about several good books today or books that I hope are going to be just right for you.

Okay we talked about Slay, and also Race to the Sun, that one was by Rebecca Roanhorse. Underland: a Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarland, The Survivors by Jane Harper, coming February 2nd, 2021 to the United States. Max, of those books what do you think you’ll read next?


MAX: I think I am most excited about the Robert Macfarland, the Underland book. I think that one sounded really interesting and definitely nerdy and fun for me. But I’m also really excited about Slay, the one that you talked about the least, I want to know more about that one immediately which I guess once again goes towards my comfort zone of reading.

ANNE: Hey, we need books in our comfort zones as well. I’m glad you’re excited about it, and I’m really glad you’re excited about The Survivors. Max, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.

MAX: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so much fun.


ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Max, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.

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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.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here.

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (try these particularly beautiful editions)
The Illustrated Brothers Grimm (there are several gorgeous options in addition to the classic cover)
The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern
A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
The His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis
Killing Floor by Lee Child
Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Hamlet by Shakespeare
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha
Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky by Kwame Mbalia
The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
Slay by Brittney Morris
Race to the Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse
Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane
The Ends of the World: Volcanic Apocalypses, Lethal Oceans and Our Quest to Understand Earth’s Past Mass Extinctions by Peter Brannen
The Survivors by Jane Harper

Also mentioned:
Rick Riordan Presents imprint


Leave A Comment
  1. Susan in TX says:

    So happy to hear Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha getting some love! That was one of my favorites from last year that seemed to not be on very many radars until award season. 😊

  2. Elizabeth says:

    A much more wheelhouse-y book for Max, but I think he might love Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. Best to go in knowing as little as possible, but it gave me Starless Sea vibes and was a delightful puzzle.

  3. Rachel E says:

    The Rick Riordan Presents imprint is fantastic! Rick Riordian doesn’t write any of them but lends his name and brand to highlight authors who are often overlooked by the industry despite being writers for a long time.
    The latest book coming out in January that I’m so excited about because I got to read the advanced copy is Sarwat Chadda’s The City of the Plague God. It’s my favorite one from the imprint. Chadda wrote this in 2018 when a plague in New York would be true fantasy, but the plague is a minor point. I loved the main character, Sikander or Sik, his love for his family, the humor and how sensitively Chadda shows Sik living out his Muslim beliefs while he grapples with ancient Mesopotamian stories. One thing that struck me is how the people who “save the day” do so in the most beautifully, non-violent ways.
    Another middle grade book also coming out in January that might be up Max’s alley (or at least in Katie’s classroom) is Amani and the Night Brothers by B.B. Alston. This is one of the most tightly plotted kids fantasy books I’ve ever read. No fluff. No useless training sequences. Action, character development and incredible world building. Amani, who has struggled with constant micro-aggressions being the only Black student in her private school, discovers her missing brother was an elite agent for a supernatural agency. She’s offered a place at the school where she uncovers her wonderful and terrible talent and has to fend off rivals and make friends to survive the training and find her brother. So, so good!

      • Pamela says:

        I have a grandson who will soon be 8 years old. He reads above his grade level but isn’t emotionally ready for anything too intense. Would the Rick Riordan presents series be too scary for him? We struggle to find books that challenge him intellectually but aren’t too violent or sad or frightening.

  4. Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon mysteries are set in different natural parks, so sometimes include interesting geological tidbits. In particular, Blind Descent takes place almost entirely underground, in Carlsbad Caverns… great story but not for the claustrophobic!

  5. Marie says:

    Loved this episode! This is much like sci-fi nerd husband and I… we also enjoy finding books we both can enjoy. One book we both loved was “The Impossible Fortress” – set in the 1980s, it’s a YA book about some teens developing a video game. Totally immersed in 1980s pop culture.

  6. lazysmurf says:

    Max, I’m sure you have read Kim Stanley Robinson’s the Mars trilogy because it’s such a classic series but I’m commenting to make sure! There is no more serious look at rock on Mars along with fascinating politics, environmentalist discussion, and a couple characters that take a long long time to change.

    I like all your favorites too. It’s time I reread the His Dark Materials series.

  7. Jill W. says:

    Given Max’s sci/fi fantasy knowledge, he has probably already read this, but I thought I’d suggest it just in case- Neil Giman’s American Gods is great. Very imaginative with well developed characters. He imagines what gods do once people stop believing in them. Anansi makes an appearance in this book, too. And the follow up book is about Anansi’s sons.

  8. Anne with an E says:

    As a fellow geologist I want to recommend the Forensic Geology series by Toni Dwiggins. They’re engaging mysteries with some rocks and volcanos involved.

  9. Katie F. says:

    I would like to recommend to Max The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow. Since he thought The Starless Sea was magical, and enjoys books with world-building, I think he will like this one.

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