Readers, the origin story for today’s episode might make you swoon. It all started with a conversation on Instagram, where I got a message from one incredibly intentional boyfriend hoping to make some bookish dreams come true. When I found out more, I had to invite his girlfriend Ashley on the show, and I’ll let her tell the whole story today.
Ashley Parrish is a book lover and self-proclaimed TV junkie who enjoys scrolling bookstagram but wants to find more backlist titles instead of picking up every book that garners a lot of buzz on social media—I’m sure many of you can relate. Today, it’s my job to share three (or maybe a few more) titles to satisfy Ashley’s love of page-turning fiction and books that revolve around the performing arts.
Let’s get to it.
You can follow Ashley on Instagram, where she shares her recent reads.
ASHLEY: We spend half of the meeting talking about all the books we’ve read on our own, and then the book that we’re doing that month. So our meetings tend to go very long. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 274.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to helping you get more out of your reading life by exploring the all-important question: 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, I want to share a quick heads up on an ebook sale. My first book Reading People is on sale right now for just $1.99 across all ebook platforms. This is the lowest price I’ve ever seen, which I hope makes this a great time for you to pick up a copy for yourself or a friend. That’s my first book Reading People, it’s all about how better understanding your own and others’ personality types improves your life, work, and relationships, and it’s $1.99 across all ebook platforms right now. I hope you enjoy it. Happy reading.
Readers, the origin story for today’s episode might make you swoon. It all started with a conversation on Instagram, where I got a message from one incredibly intentional boyfriend hoping to make some bookish dreams come true. When I found out more, I had to invite his girlfriend Ashley to come on the show as a guest, and I’ll let her tell the whole story today.
Ashley Parrish is a book lover and self-proclaimed TV junkie who enjoys scrolling bookstagram but wants to find more backlist titles instead of picking up every book that garners a lot of buzz on social media—I’m sure many of you can relate. Today, it’s my job to share three (or maybe a few more) titles to satisfy Ashley’s love of page-turning fiction and books that revolve around the performing arts.
Let’s get to it!
Ashley, welcome to the show.
ASHLEY: Hi! Thank you for having me, Anne. I’m so excited to be here.
ANNE: Ashley, this is not the first What Should I Read Next recording that has come to pass because of an Instagram message, but our whole team just really liked the whole story behind this one and it started with a DM to me from your boyfriend. But I’ve never heard this story from your perspective actually. Would you tell us what happened?
ASHLEY: Anyone who knows Rudy, he’s a true overachiever and perfectionist and so for Christmas he surprised me with themed gifts and one was a set of Disney gifts which is completely random, but I love Disney. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: He didn’t tell me about that part.
ASHLEY: Yeah. [LAUGHS] He only gave you the information that he felt was important. [LAUGHS] But yeah, and then the other set was a set of books and he’s not the person to just give me a book. He curated a TBR stack according to my interests. He added brochures with award winning books, gave me book accessories, and so he presented all that and I was completely shocked because I didn’t think he listened to me talk about books and bookstagram. He then said oh yeah, and I hear you talk about Anne Bogel all the time, so I bought you the Anne Bogel book and I reached out to her to see if she can join your book club. And I was completely shocked. Shocked and not shocked because he does everything at 120%.
ANNE: [BOTH LAUGH] Well thank you Rudy, for making that happen. When he told me about you he said, you know, this is my girlfriend Ashley. This is what she likes to read. She’s read a lot more in the past years. She’s in a book club called The Bourbons Babe Book Club. Like these are the things … And I just thought oh, well, yeah, yeah, that sounds delightful. Can I invite myself to this bookclub? How did he do with the stack of books?
ASHLEY: He did phenomenal and he had told me like he went through all of the books I had posted on my bookstagram page, and then looked at how other bookstagrammers to make sure that it was a fit for me and my personality. But every book was spot on and there was only one book that I had just made a post about like the day before that he bought and he was like oh no, I saw that you just posted it. I was like yeah. [BOTH LAUGH] I have that.
ANNE: What was the book?
ASHLEY: It was Theria.
ANNE: Which I think is a sign he knows you really well.
ASHLEY: He knows me well.
ANNE: Okay. That’s wonderful! So I was a little surprised to hear that while you’ve always loved to read, you haven’t always been a reader in the present tense.
ASHLEY: Yeah. So when I was a younger I loved to read, I was completely just obsessed with books and then I discovered friends and hanging out with friends. [BOTH LAUGH] And so that kinda took my life away from reading and honestly, there was a huge gap in between, so I didn’t really pick up books again until like after college because in college I was working and in school and again hanging out with friends going to parties and things like that, and then when I hit my 30s, I decided that I need to get back to reading. I love it. It should be a priority and I should make time for it. And so in the past few years, maybe three years, I’ve read more than I’ve read in my entire life and I love it. I’m completely back into it.
ANNE: Do you remember what made you think like huh, I gotta bring this back into my life again.
ASHLEY: You know, I think that it was looking at the book clubs online, so at the time I was looking at like Reese Witherspoon’s book club I think she had just started it and I was like, you know what I would really like to talk to people about books, I would like to get back into reading, and I think I said that just to a group of my inner circle ‘cause we had never discussed books before and they said the exact same thing. So then we all decided to form this Bourbon Babes Book Club and then that kinda catapulted it to what my reading life is now.
ANNE: It’s so interesting that you stopped reading for a while because of friends but now you’re reading again with the help of friends. I imagine that that’s not a coincidence that really says something about who you are as a reader and about your personality.
ASHLEY: Yes, yes. I love my girls and we’re also reading all outside of book club so it’s like we spend half of the meeting talking about all the books that we’ve read on our own and then the book that we’re doing that month, so our meetings tend to go very long. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Tell me about book club during a pandemic.
ASHLEY: So we started out doing Zoom meetings and then we went back into in-person because we have ten people, and we all have like outdoor setups to where we could do it safely outside. So I have like a huge wrap around porch around my house and a backyard that we just got finished and a lot of the girls have outdoor fireplaces. We’ve just been blessed with good outdoor step ups to where we could just be outside, be distanced and still each other, and I like that a lot better. But now it’s winter, we’re back to Zoom so I’m hoping that springtime comes pretty soon.
ANNE: Ashley, how would you describe your reading life right now?
ASHLEY: My reading life ... I’m just still in the early phases of it since I’m just coming back to it. It’s like that newlywed phase, and so I’m so excited that I can’t get enough. So I’m reading back to back to back and I really like to read contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and I’ve discovered that I like fantasy as well. I didn’t think I would be a fantasy person, but I love it. It balances me out.
ANNE: How did you discover that?
ASHLEY: A couple of years ago I decided to read like the Harry Potter series and I really liked that and so I went a step further and got into things like Slay, I really enjoyed Slay. The House on the Cerulean Sea, I enjoyed that. So that’s more so recent reads and then after reading those, like every fantasy book I picked up was like five star reads for me. So I kept going with it.
ANNE: I’m so glad you took a chance on a new genre. Ashley, what do you do when you’re not reading?
ASHLEY: When I’m not reading I’m definitely a TV junkie, that sounds terrible, but I love TV. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: There are great stories on TV as well.
ASHLEY: There are and just every show that comes out I just think that they’re also beautifully written. I’m also a big scrapbooker. I love photos and photography and so I just like to keep those moments preserved so that’s always fun for me. And then my new obsession with Disney World which was completely pandemic driven. I’m now like looking back to the history of Disney which I found fascinating. So I picked up a biography of Walt Disney and I haven’t finished it because it can get a little dry. [BOTH LAUGH] But I’m just so fascinated with historian and what type of a business person that he was to create this fantasy world I guess.
ANNE: That’s so funny, Ashley. I used to work in property law and the Disney story is legend there for the way that the land was acquired to build Disney World back in the day. It’s just interesting how something so present in the culture can still be very specifically topically interesting.
ANNE: I’m glad you’re enjoying that. Did you ever expect to rabbit hole in that direction during the pandemic?
ASHLEY: I didn’t, and I mean Rudy probably gets sick of me like spitting out random facts. I was like did you know Disney has their own electric company?
ANNE: I - I didn’t know that. Did he know that?
ASHLEY: No, he didn’t! I guess they didn’t want to use the city’s electricity or it wasn’t available so they have their own company for literally everything. You can go down the rabbit hole. [BOTH LAUGH] I’ll just say that.
ANNE: Now as we’re thinking about your reading life today, should we be thinking Disney books? What are you interested in exploring in your reading life, Ashley?
ASHLEY: Like I said I love historical fiction as well. I think what I’m looking for in my reading life right now is books that are not new releases because bookstagram has sent me down a rabbit hole where I get the book the minute it comes out and sometimes before, and so I definitely want to go back into like older books but staying along the lines of fiction but also I wouldn’t mind doing some nonfiction as well.
ANNE: Okay. So your reading life these days is bookstagram made me do it.
ASHLEY: Bookstagram makes me do everything. [BOTH LAUGH] I’ve gotta stop. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well you are not the first reader to feel both indebted and beholden to bookstagram. We will certainly explore that. Ashley, I can’t wait to hear more about what you’ve been reading lately and also what it is precisely that bookstagram is making you read. Are you ready to dive into your books?
ASHLEY: I am.
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ANNE: Okay, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these titles for today?
ASHLEY: So I chose more recent reads and just the books that I can’t stop thinking about or that I’m constantly recommending to other people.
ANNE: That’s a really good way to pick. Okay, let’s dive in. Tell me about your first favorite.
ASHLEY: So my first favorite was Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman and this is the prequel to the Practical Magic series. I haven’t read the other books but I wanted to pick this up so this was the start of the story. [LAUGHS] It’s the story of Maria Owens who’s a healer or a witch and it follows her through childhood, through her adulthood when she was raising her daughter, and I love that this is a story about love, but it’s not written like a romance novel because I’m not really into romance or at least I don’t think I am. [BOTH LAUGH] It’s about a love between partners, between family members, mother and daughter, and the community, and I just like that it’s about witches. I love witches. I like historical fiction, and this is set in the Salem witch trial … It’s just beautifully written.
ANNE: Tell me more about liking witches.
ASHLEY: I don’t know if that comes from Hocus Pocus because that was one of my favorite movies growing up, but they’re just so fascinating. Me and my sister actually went to Salem to see some of the places where they filmed that movie and to see like where the Salem witch trials were and I just thought that was so interesting.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun you can do that together. What was that like going to Salem?
ASHLEY: It was beautiful. I mean the town is a town … I haven’t really been to a place like that. I haven’t been to the Northeast before then and so the houses were gorgeous. I just loved the style. It was a quaint little town. It looked like a town that would have witches [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I love how that long held interest you see it in your reading life, you see it in the travels. You see it with what you do with the other people in your life like your sister. Ashley, what did you choose for your second favorite?
ASHLEY: So my second was The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and I read this a few years ago and still to this day recommend it to everyone. This book was the only book that we ever read in book club where everyone rated it 5 stars.
ANNE: Oh wow.
ASHLEY: We all absolutely loved it so I don’t know what it says about us. [LAUGHS] We can never really agree on anything. [BOTH LAUGH] I read this book without, like, needing to come up for air and that’s different for me. Like normally I have to take a break and pick it up again, but this book I just, like, read completely through. And I was just so interested in Evelyn’s story and all the things that she had to do. She had to pretty much claw her way to the top, and the ending completely shocked me. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t even realize that we were building up to that moment, which I liked a lot. I like to be shocked at the end but I don’t like thrillers, so I like a neat, little [LAUGHS] life story and then a big shocker at the end.
ANNE: She has a new book coming out this summer. It’s called Malibu Rising and there’s a fun little connection between Evelyn Hugo in that book. Evelyn Hugo’s husband number 3 is one of the central characters in Malibu Rising, but he was total forgettable as husband number 3, like he just … Like he was just mentioned almost in passing. I think he was gullible. I mean, he was husband number 3 of 7, he couldn’t have been that great of a guy, right? [ASHLEY LAUGHS] Like that’s how fiction works? [LAUGHS] Maybe that would be a fun connection for your book club.
ASHLEY: Yeah. I’m so excited to pick that new one up. We actually … Well I also read Daisy Jones and the Six and then told all of book club about it and so they read that and then we picked up One True Loves of hers as well and we didn’t like that as much because it was more so on the romance side, but we love Taylor and everything she writes, so we’ll continue to read her books.
ANNE: That was definitely from a different era in her career. I see what you’re saying. And what did you choose for your final favorite?
ASHLEY: So my final favorite was Girl, Woman, Other. So in this book each chapter is a story of a different character and it’s of Black, British women or Black LGBTQ persons and it follows their lives and their struggles. I felt deeply for each one of these characters and what they were going through, and I’m a Black woman, so I was wanting to read stories that had more Black characters and I’m so glad that I picked this up. Even though each chapter is of a different character, they all are intertwined so they all are connected in one way or another. And I actually had to, like, create a map to say who knows who and who’s involved in whose lives and this one also ended with a twist. I found that exciting as well.
ANNE: Tell me more about this map you made.
ASHLEY: Once I got through the first six characters, I realized like okay, I’m seeing this pattern of them being related but I’m not going to remember by the end of it because it’s actually 12 different people and so I would write a person in a little bubble and then kinda write what that person went through, their main storyline, and then connect it by lines to the next person so like the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. [BOTH LAUGH] It’s like putting the degrees out there. I can’t remember what the chart’s called. I know the bubbles and the lines, but I don’t know what kind of chart that is, but that’s a chart that I made.
ANNE: I love picturing that. I love when there’s something like a map at the front of the book and if the publisher doesn’t provide, you just make your own. I was surprised to discover recently when I talked to Nadia of The Storygraph on the podcast that no one has chosen Girl, Woman, Other as a guest favorite yet because Obama called it one of his favorites. I thought it would be on the show by now, but I love that you brought it up again now because it certainly deserves it. And many love it because it’s set in the world of theater and the arts. Is that something that you look for in your books? You touched on that too with The Seven Lives of Evelyn Hugo which was interesting.
ASHLEY: Yeah. You know, I honestly didn’t realize that until you just said it. [LAUGHS] I do love theater and the arts. It’s very much a part of my life. I was actually in show choir in high school and I love musicals. I’m a member of the art museum here, and so it is a part of my life and I didn’t realize that I was putting that into my reading as well. I guess it was subconscious.
ANNE: Well I love that you did that and that you sought this out in your reading life without even realizing that. Ashley, it’s time for you to share a book that was not right for you. How did you choose this one?
ASHLEY: This was kinda hard because I really like a lot of books. I guess I’m a mood reader and so I kinda go into it knowing what I want to read. So it was difficult to pick one that I didn’t like, but I chose Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and I was so excited about this. It had all the buzz on bookstagram, had a beautiful cover. And I picked it as part of my subscription box and this was my first gothic novel, so I didn’t know what to expect but I was thinking it would be a little creepy, but not too scary.
But the reason why I didn’t like it is that I feel like nothing happened for 3/4ths of it. [BOTH LAUGH] Yeah. And so the house is a character itself which was interesting, and so it’d have a couple of creepy details and then nothing would happen for chapters you know going forward. And then in the end everything happens, like all the things happen and it was so jam-packed I guess explaining what has been going on and so when I finished it I thought I liked it more than what I did because I was coming off that high of the thrill. As I sat with it, I was like okay, yeah the ending was full of fine, but it wasn’t worth reading all of the pages before that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So like the first three quarters of the book was about what, like setting the mood? Is that fair?
ASHLEY: Yeah it was setting the mood. It kinda explained the backstory or the family in the house. I don’t really know. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. So you need more than a mood. You need some action to feel a book is satisfying.
ANNE: But it sounds like you stuck it through ‘til the end.
ASHLEY: I didn’t hate this book at all. I kinda rated it in the middle. I just don’t think that I would pick it up again, and I think the reason why I knew it should be the book I didn’t like is because I’m willing to part with it and I’m never willing to part with my books.
ANNE: Tell me more about that.
ASHLEY: So I love building my bookshelves and I’m just so excited to just see everything there and a couple years ago I had in my mind that I was going to quit my job and become a librarian because I just loved seeing bookshelves and everyone convinced me that maybe I should think that through again. [BOTH LAUGH] ‘Cause I have a pretty good career, so they’re like do you really want to go back to school and spend all this money to become a librarian when you can just like keep adding to your bookshelves? And I agree. That was good. I have a good job. So I just like seeing the books and I’ll let people borrow them but I don’t ever want to get rid of them permanently like I just want them all to be there.
ANNE: How do you store them in your house?
ASHLEY: I have two bookshelves right now in my living room and they’re overflowing so. I actually just called someone to come in to give me a quote on built-ins going all across our living room wall. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That sounds glorious. So that’s a real commitment to the house and to the books.
ASHLEY: It is. But I think it’s going to be well worth it.
ANNE: As someone who went down that road a few years ago I’m not going to argue with you. [ASHLEY LAUGHS] Okay, well I look forward to seeing that project unfold on bookstagram. Ashley, what are you reading right now?
ASHLEY: So I just finished The Four Winds and I really liked that. I liked the historical aspect of it so it’s set in the Great Depression in the Dust Bowl era and it’s about a woman and her family and just kinda what she’s gone through motherhood and going through the Great Depression as a farmer that was highly impacted. The setting was a huge thing in this book. It was kinda like a character in itself and I enjoyed that. Towards the middle it got a little repetitive and it wasn’t moving fast enough for me but I stuck with it and I still think it’s a great book. It had me Googling a lot about the Great Depression because I didn’t know much about it.
And then another book that I just finished was Transcendent Kingdom and I absolutely loved this. It was beautiful. I liked how it touched on religion and just kinda her back and forth struggle with that. I just found that completely interesting. And then my last book that I also just finished was Forgiving What You Can’t Forget which was a Christian self-help book about healing and moving on and it was written very beautifully and it was by Lysa TerKeurst.
ANNE: We’ll touch on what you’re looking for right now, and that is more books that are not brand new. What else are you looking for in your reading life?
ASHLEY: Yeah, more books that are not brand new and more books by Black authors. Like I said I am a Black woman and I want my shelves to reflect that and reflect my culture and maybe a touch of magic here and there. Just to … I mean there’s so much going on in the world that is depressing [BOTH LAUGH] and …
ANNE: It’s funny because it’s true. And also you laugh or you cry.
ASHLEY: It’s a little uplifting and not so sad and depressing I guess. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well that sounds fun. Let’s do this.
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ANNE: The books you chose as your favorites were Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman, The Seven Husband of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins-Reed, and Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo. Not for you because not enough happens is Mexican Gothic by Silva Moreno-Garcia. We’re looking for books by Black authors, books that feel uplifting and hopeful, and books that have a little touch of magic.
Now what I would really love for you is a book by a Black author with Black characters set in the world of say the theater, like Girl, Woman, Other, maybe with a little touch of magic. I cannot think of such a book. Readers, if you can think of such a book, please, please, please tell us in the show notes, we really want to know. I think we can tick off some of those requests with individual titles. Do you want to give it a shot?
ASHLEY: Yeah, let’s do it.
ANNE: Talk to me about how important the hopefulness is. Does that have to be in every book?
ASHLEY: No, not at all.
ANNE: Okay, that’s good because the book I want to discuss first is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. Have you read this one? Because it’s been on bookstagram but not for a few years.
ASHLEY: Yeah I actually bought it, but I haven’t read it.
ANNE: Okay! Well I am hopeful that is a good sign that it is right for you just like Rudy gave you a book you picked out for yourself, [ASHLEY LAUGHS] I hope this means it can be good for you. Okay well here’s what I like about this book for you besides the fact that Tayari Jones is a phenomenal writer but something I really like about this book for you is that one of her two main characters is an artist in this book.
This is Tayari Jones, at this moment of time, her most recent full length novel and she said for a long time that she knew she wanted to write about the issue of unjust incarceration but she didn’t want it to just be an issues book, she needed a story. And then she was at the mall one day and she overheard this couple talking, probably even arguing would be more like it and she heard the woman say to the man you know, you wouldn’t have waited on me for seven years, and she said that this man was upset, but also at least she thought that he was hurt, and he said that wouldn’t have happened to you in the first place. And she says no, you tell me, would you have waited for me? And he was just so frustrated he couldn’t respond.
And she said at the time she was really sympathetic to the man because it was clear that he had suffered but she looked like she had it together and she said like the emotions, they were so complex and clearly something painful had happened. And it got her thinking and that became the seeds of this story, and she used the man’s name from the mall. His name was Roy, and then she created what she said was a younger version of herself for the female in the couple and she named her Celestial.
So very early in this book he is unjustly accused of assaulting someone at I believe it’s a Louisiana motel when they’re visiting family. Thankfully that’s not the important part so it’s okay if I’m getting the details not precisely right, but he ends up going to prison and the question becomes like what does Celestial do while she’s waiting? The reason that Tayari Jones found this so compelling is that it’s a conflict in which both parties had a legitimate point and of course she wouldn’t have been incarcerated in the first place and how do you patiently wait for someone for seven years and what happens, like how does a couple break down when faced with a conflict like that? That is the initial seed of An American Marriage, which what a title when you think about what it’s about.
But in the book Celestial is an artist. She makes beautiful, unique, high value dolls and it’s an important part of her character and an important part of her life and work like she is on the brink of great success when her husband gets sent to prison, which is so jarring you know, like this prosperous artist’s husband who is incarcerated and the tension she feels and just … I would recommend you read anything Tayari Jones writes past, present, or future, and I would say that to most readers [LAUGHS] ‘cause she really is one of our greatest living novelists, but especially with this element of the art I think that could be an especially good recommendation for you.
And on that note, there’s this thing that Audible is doing now … They have been for a couple years where they’re putting out Audible originals that are available only to people in the Audible platform but she did an Audible original it’s a novella basically it’s called Half Light and it’s about two identical twins. Their names are Amelia and Camelia and they’re very, very different of course in a novel like this but they look almost identical and they have this deep bond between them. I don’t want to tell you too much, but one of them has just gotten divorced or she’s - she’s in the process of getting divorced and she has got to get back this precious work of art that was given to her by the girl’s mother, and of course if the mother gave her most precious possession to only one of her twin daughters, you can imagine that there’s like plenty of tension simmering below that surface, but it’s an irreplaceable painting. It’s of their mother painted as Ophelia from the Shakespeare play from - from a specific stage production of the Shakespeare play.
This just came out in late 2020 and we know because An American Marriage, it’s not the first time she’s incorporated this element of the artistic and the beautiful and the finely crafted into her work but that could also be I think really fun to explore and it is an Audible original which means it is audio only. It’s read. It’s narrated by Bahini Turpin who is one of my favorites. She’s just an amazing narrator. It is short. It’s only a couple hours long, but for those who do have the Audible platform, that could be a really fun listen if you’re impatiently waiting for Tayari Jones’ next novel or a really great introduction to her work ‘cause it’s short and easy.
Okay, so that was An American Marriage and Half Light by Tayari Jones. How do those sound?
ASHLEY: Those sound great. And I had no idea that the American Marriage had any art aspect to it so yeah, I’m very interested in both of those.
ANNE: Okay. I am happy to hear it. I really want to go in the direction of witches ‘cause there’s just so much good stuff. How does that sound to you?
ASHLEY: That sounds fantastic. I’m excited. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. Well there’s a new book that just came out in October which may be too recent for you but it’s by Alix E. Harrow. It’s called The Once and Future Witches. Is this one that you’ve read or that’s on your radar?
ASHLEY: No, I saw it on bookstagram but I didn’t really read anything about it so please tell me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. Well let me start by saying that she really made a splash with her first, I think her first novel, The Ten Thousand Doors of January which we’ve talked about on the podcast as being like a really wonderful fantasy novel but also a gateway fantasy for those who don’t read a ton of fantasy or aren’t sure if they’re going to like the genre. It’s a great one to pick up, but her next book that just came out in October 2020 is called The Once and Future Witches.
When she first described that to our book club, she said, I have a book coming out! It just has a name play on a classic work of literature and let me just give you my three word pitch. Suffragettes but witches. And it’s set in 1893 Salem, but it’s not - it’s not set in the 1893 Salem that we learned about in history class.
This is an alternate reality where the suffragettes have turned to witchcraft and they’re doing it to pursue women’s rights and freedoms, and the story centers on three sisters. Three sisters who have delightfully witchy names. They’re named James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna and usually we say on What Should I Read Next that it’s not the character names that matter, we just want to know about the story, but I hope that those character names give you a good sense of the feel of the story and her sense of humor and how she’s really having fun with taking history and rewriting it.
So most of Salem believes that there’s no such thing as witches but the sisters know otherwise and they use their witch ways, that’s what Harrow calls spells in her book, to influence things to workout in their favor and they are busily fighting evil forces, creating these magical witch ways and bonding with each other in order to secure the rights that they are owed as women.
It took me a little while to get my bearings for the first hundred pages of the book but it’s doing more than setting the mood. It’s setting up a story. But especially given that you’ve been to Salem, and you love books about witches, I just think this could be a really fun pick for you. How does that sound?
ASHLEY: It sounds great. I think it’s - it’s good. [LAUGHS] It’s perfect.
ANNE: Okay. I’m glad to hear it. That was The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow. Now we haven’t discussed this yet today on the show but you mentioned that you do enjoy reading some YA. Before we go that direction, talk to me about YA.
ASHLEY: I love YA. The books are just written so beautifully. I love the stories. I love how the characters are developed. I think I’m more so like YA when there’s like a big plot or a struggle more so than like a romance, but I’m sold on YA books.
ANNE: Well in that case I want to recommend a story that certainly has hard things but is such a feel good story. It’s Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. This is about a teenage boy who has some things to figure out and who really feels like he doesn’t belong so he’s Iranian on his mother’s side. He’s white American on his father’s side. He goes to high school in Portland. He just never feels like he fits in no matter where he goes. He doesn’t speak enough farsi to actually talk to his Iranian relatives even though he looks just like his mother, but he doesn’t fit in at school either. He’s mocked and bullied and he’s depressed, like clinically depressed as a result of that. His father who also struggles with depression seems to always be disappointed in him even though they share so many of the same struggles, and to add like sorrow upon sorrow here, his grandfather is … I think it’s his grandfather, and not his grandmother ... He has a relative that … his mother’s parent back in Iran is terminally ill, so the family’s going to go back to their home country and get to know the people where he feels like he’s not going to fit in there either.
Then for the first time he begins to discover a sense of belonging, even though at first he’s totally unmoored. He doesn’t know how to play the card games. He doesn’t understand the customs ‘cause that’s not what his life was like in Oregon. But he’s still nevertheless accepted by his family and he makes a true friend for the first time. something that’s completely new to him and he’s able to just relax and feel safe. He ends up really enjoying his time there and really getting a sense of himself and his own identity for the first time.
But what I want you to know about this story is that the writing is really rich and just really evokes the sense of place and the descriptions of food are so, so good and the way that the author writes about the dynamics of these various intersecting complex relationships feels so right and is so touching. But the main thing I want you to know is that so many readers say is that this is — not just me — this is the most likable teenage boy in any book they’ve ever read. Well it’s true that it may make you cry. Like it’ll make you laugh on the same page, sometimes in the same moment and I think that might be the kind of story that you are looking for. Hard times require good books and a specific kind of them and I think this might be one of them. What do you think?
ASHLEY: I agree. I think it sounds great even the food quality ‘cause I love food. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Yeah, it’ll make you hungry. So that is Darius the Great is Not Okay Adib Khorram. I just have to toss in a few extras.
ANNE: I was really thinking about Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams would be good for a sense of place, similar place to Girl, Woman, Other, and watching someone in their 20s, the protagonist is 25, going through a lot of stuff. The story’s told in a really fun way that has a lot of group chats and emails and stuff like that which can be a lot of fun on the page, especially for someone who does have a lot of group chats and emails with her own friends and who really values friendships.
You mentioned that you made you own maps in front of books before, map out the relationships, that put me in mind We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, which instead of a map in the opening, it’s like a layout of the various positions on the field hockey team on the field, so that you know who plays which position. It’s witches and field hockey in the ‘80s and I thought that could just be a lot of fun.
ASHLEY: Oh wow.
ANNE: And The Good House by Ann Leary is also a really fun witchy Massachusetts contemporary novel about an alcoholic desperately trying to be sober while her life crumbles around her in modern day, small town Massachusetts.
And Maggie O'Farrell’s new book Hamnet about Shakespeare’s wife is a witchy kind of woman who communes with animals and perhaps has more influence over the natural world than is safe for her community not to be terrified of her but just a really gorgeous evocative unexpected and really, really desperately sad novel. So know that going in, but also just the witchy element is kinda fun and not maybe one you’d expect in a novel about Shakespeare’s wife.
Okay so I had to sneak those in, but of the books we talked about today An American Marriage by Tayari Jones, also Half Light, we snuck in there, The Once and Future Witches by Alix Harrow, and Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram. Of those three books what do you think you may read next?
ASHLEY: Well I’m definitely going to pick up all of them because the description sounds great, but I think I’m going to read The Once and Future Witches first.
ANNE: Well I’m excited to hear it and I can’t wait to hear what you think. Ashley, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
ASHLEY: Thanks for having me, I had so much fun.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Ashley, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/274 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today and also how to connect further with Ashley.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
• Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez
• Harry Potter series (#1 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
• Slay by Brittney Morris
• The House on the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
• Walt Disney: The Man Behind the Magic by Aa Christiansen
♥ Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman
♥ The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
• Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
• One True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid
♥ Girl Woman Other by Bernadine Evaristo
△ Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia
• The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah
• Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
• Forgetting What You Can’t Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful Again by Lysa TerKeurst
• An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
• Half Light byTayari Jones
• The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
• Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram
• Queenie by Candace Carty-Williams
• We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry
• The Good House by Ann Leary
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