WSIRN Ep 319: A grumpy man whisperer on a literary mission

colorful books on wooden bookshelves

Readers, in her submission to the show, today’s guest described herself as a “grumpy man whisperer” who relies on books to forge connections, and I couldn’t wait to hear more.

Erin Fagan is an airline pilot, and in the course of her job, she regularly crosses paths with a wide range of people. To pass the time on cross-country flights, Erin turns to book-talk as a way to get to know her co-pilots and fill the hours of windshield time.

Luckily, Erin’s natural inclination is to read across a variety of genres, so she’s ready for any conversational direction. And while she primarily listens to audiobooks, she’s looking for an old-fashioned paper book that will draw her in and hold her attention.

Throughout our conversation today, Erin and I have fun chatting about what’s really playing on the airpods of those pilots moving purposefully through the airport, and Erin shares the book she loves so much, she calls herself its one-woman marketing campaign. My recommendations give Erin some new titles to help her make connections on her next trip.

Listen to What Should I Read Next? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app—or scroll down to press play and listen right in your web browser.

What Should I Read Next #319: A grumpy man whisperer on a literary mission, with Erin Fagan

Connect with Erin on Instagram and see what she’s reading lately on Goodreads.

ERIN: I think I made it about 100 pages in and I gave up, which I felt really bad for the book club that I didn't finish the book that I suggested. [BOTH LAUGH]


ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 319.

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, in her guest submission, today’s guest described herself as a “grumpy man whisperer” who relies on books to forge connections with strangers, and I just had to know more.

Erin Fagan is an airline pilot, a career that brings her into contact with a wide range of people, and she describes her working community as both homogenous and diverse. When she’s in the cockpit for hours with a colleague she doesn’t know well, Erin turns to book-talk as a great way to pass the time and build a relationship with her co-pilot.

Erin is always ready to navigate these conversations no matter where they head because she enjoys a variety of genres. She’s also an audiobook aficionado, and while she’s happy with this state of affairs, she expresses a concern we’ve increasingly heard from readers lately: she wants to find an old-fashioned paper book that will keep her captivated next time she’s on the ground. My recommendations today give Erin some new stories to fuel her connections no matter where she goes.

We also enjoy chatting about what your pilot is REALLY listening to when they’re moving through the airport with their airpods in, and how Erin fell for a book so hard she jokes she’s become a one-woman marketing campaign.

Let’s get to it.

Erin, welcome to the show.


ERIN: Thanks for having me.

ANNE: Oh, it is my pleasure. I can't wait to talk books with you. Tell me a little bit about where you are in the world today.

ERIN: I live in Fort Worth, Texas. I counted the other day, I've lived 11 places since I've graduated from high school. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Oh, wow. How long ago was that?

ERIN: I graduated high school in 2000. Lived in Colorado, a couple places in Texas, South Dakota, Mississippi, and near Washington, D.C. as well, so

ANNE: Kay. Do you have a favorite yet?

ERIN: We really liked living in Washington, D.C. It's so expensive, but there's so much to do there, and we lived not too far from the Little Korea, so Korean barbecue. One of our neighbors knew the best places to eat, so she knew the Ethiopian place around the corner. It was ... There was just so much variety and things to do. It was really fun.

ANNE: Yeah. What is driving the frequent moves?

ERIN: Well I served in the air force for eleven years. About in the three quarters of the way through that I met my husband. I was in Rapid City, South Dakota and he was in Tucson and we actually happened to meet at Sturgis, at the motorcycle rally.


ERIN: [LAUGHS] Neither of us have ever owned a bike but I lived about 20 minutes from there. My colleagues and I, anytime we weren't deployed, we would go in ... Mostly for the concerts. I've, you know, seen Guns 'N' Roses and Motley Crue and ZZ Top and lots of awesome acts. Yeah. He was visiting a friend, and so a friend of a friend and we just happened to meet there. I was ready to be done with my service not too long after that, so I got out and he’s still serving in the air force for a few more years. And I'm an airline pilot for a major airline now, a first officer.


ANNE: Tell us a little bit about your rhythms.

ERIN: You can either be on reserve, which means you're on call for 18 days out of a month, or you can have a set schedule, so you bid for trips based on your seniority. Usually when you have a set schedule, you work 12-15 days out of the month, so when I'm home, I'm kind of a stay at home mom to my three year old daughter, but when I'm gone, I am literally gone, and then I fly all over the country and sometimes to Central and South America.

ANNE: Erin, what brings you to What Should I Read Next?

ERIN: I am a huge podcast fan. I’ve listened probably to 30 different podcasts and I think I've been listening, also obviously a huge reading fan. I started out as an old school Books on the Nightstand listener.


ERIN: Yes, and …

ANNE: Oh, Michael and Ann, we miss you.

ERIN: Yes. They're the best. The OGs, and from them I think it's especially when they were saying they were close to being done or through them, I think that's how I found my way to you because I wanted another podcast that would inspire me to read new things, just encourage a love of reading, so.

ANNE: Oh, I'm so glad to hear that. Listeners, we have a wonderful episode with Ann Kingman recommending reads fulfilling your requests, and we will put that in show notes. Michael Kindness said really nice things about What Should I Read Next and said I sounded like Delilah. [LAUGHS]

ERIN:Oh. I can – I can definitely hear that. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Erin, when we got your submission at, we were so intrigued by the way you related your professional life to your reading life and talked about how books were your go-to topic when working with new crew members and you also said you consider yourself a grumpy man whisperer? [ERIN LAUGHS] I would love to hear more about what reading brings to your work life.


ERIN: Being an airline pilot's an interesting mix of working with a very humongous group of people and also a very diverse group of people. Airline pilots in general, especially captains, are generally 50 to 60 year old white guys. And that's just the way it has been historically. It's only about 5% women are airline pilots and ...

ANNE: [WHISPERS] It's only 5%? I didn't realize it was so low!

ERIN: Yeah. Only about 10% are not white, so it's a pretty non-diverse group of people. A lot of military backgrounds, which I do connect with them in that because we can tell each other our war stories and that kind of thing. A lot of them are kind of like my dad or an uncle, you know, but the flight attendants are super diverse. All ages, all backgrounds, races, very LGBTQ friendly, so I kind of get both ends of the spectrum where I have to sit and talk.

When we're in the cockpit the only thing we're allowed to do is our job and chat, so [LAUGHS] you often need some safe topics that you don't know if the person sitting next to you is on the left end of the political spectrum, on the right end of the political spectrum. If they're religious or if they're an atheist, so books are usually my go-to for asking them about what they like or what have you read recently? So that helps me connect with all different types of people and if I read a variety of things, I can talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates or I can talk about Milton Freidman, so it's a great way to connect with people. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Oh, I would love to hear about a memorable cockpit conversation.

ERIN: Oh, yeah, definitely. One of my favorite captains to fly with, I was based in ... It was when we lived in Washington, D.C. and he's very conservative, Catholic. The first time I flew with him, we flew to Las Vegas and he went straight to Mass, but super nice and he loves sci-fi./fantasy books. Every time I flew with him – we probably flew together for four or five times over three years – we would just nerd out over sci-fi/fantasy books, like the whole time. [LAUGHS] So I kind of miss flying with him. I don't – we're not based in the same place anymore, so I haven't seen him in a long time.

ANNE: So you have to find someplace else to get your fantasy ... Sci-fi/fantasy book recs.


ERIN: Yeah. Maybe I should send him a text message. [BOTH LAUGH] What are you reading recently?

ANNE: I love the way books bring people together, and that's amazing.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: Erin, what are the rhythms of your reading life?

ERIN: When I'm home with my daughter, if she's watching a show, I really ... I'm not a huge fan of Paw Patrol, so if she's watching a show [ANNE LAUGHS] I usually have an earbud in. If we're at the park, you know, I can kind of be listening on the side and still interact with her, or pause and talk to the other parents, that kind of thing. On my trips, as I'm walking through the airport, I usually have my earbuds in and I'm listening to a book or a podcast and then obviously like I said, when we're flying on the flight deck, I can't do anything else except talk on the radios or be actively managing the aircraft, so no reading there. [ANNE LAUGHS] But … [LAUGHS]

ANNE: As a once upon a time airplane traveler, yes, I'm thrilled to hear that.

ERIN: Yes, yeah, for sure. All the people in the back should be reading, but not me. [ANNE LAUGHS] But once we're in a city, it's pretty often that we only have about 12 hours off to get a meal, get, you know, required amount of sleep and maybe I have time to workout. Maybe I don't. A lot of times while I'm getting ready or before I go to bed, I'll read or while I'm working out I'll listen to an audiobook while I'm in the hotel. And then every once in a while you'll get a nice long layover somewhere, you know, 20 hours off in New York City or ... It doesn't happen for me very often recently, but when you can walk around a new city and have your earbuds in and enjoy a little sightseeing but get some book listening time in also. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Love that.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: I've noticed that you’ve said audiobooks and earbuds a lot of times in the last couple of minutes.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: Tell me about your relationship with audiobooks.


ERIN: They're essential for me to be multitasking so I can enjoy a great book, but also be focused on something else with my hands or cleaning or whatever, or walking around in another city. I would say probably 90% of my reading now is audiobooks just for convenience, and also because at night when I'm sitting down after the kiddo, we've tired her out enough so that she's actually asleep [ANNE LAUGHS] a lot of times I make the mistake of okay, I forgot my earbud’s in, but then I'm also going to play a game or you know, be scrolling through social media that I don't put things down and pick up my paper book that I love so much too. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Is there something you feel like you're missing there, with the paper?

ERIN: You know, there's some audiobooks that are just amazing. The memoirs in someone's own voice, the audiobook version of Murderbot. I've listened to it like three times because it's the best. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: The whole series? Are we talking about the whole series you've listened to three times through?

ERIN: Yes, maybe I've listened to the whole series three times through. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Wait, wait, wait, wait. You don't need that tone. [ERIN LAUGHS] You can say it with pride.

ERIN: It might be my happy place now that if I'm in a slump, I'm just going to go back to Murderbot because if anybody out there needs a great book for a reluctant teenage boy reader or their military spouse, I think Murderbot is just perfect for that ‘cause it hits all of my military brain happy places. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: And reading it three times through for the ... Is it a five book series at this point?

ERIN: Yes, I think so.

ANNE: Yeah. It's not essential, but Erin won't try to talk you out of it, listeners.

ERIN: [LAUGHS] I have sung its praises. I might have given it away to at least five people and I've convinced my mom and my brother to read it and they've loved it too ... Oh, and my husband. Can't forget my husband. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay. So you're a one-woman marketing campaign.


ERIN: Possibly. I really need to send a letter to Martha Wells and say I love your books so much. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: How often does Murderbot come up in the cockpit?

ERIN: If someone is a reader, you know, sometimes it is rare for a person who really likes sci-fi. There are people who dabble, obviously, but I do, especially if someone has a military background, or who likes the military aesthetic in books, I will definitely recommend it to them and tell them, you know, that first book, especially is 150 pages. I mean, if you don't like it, it's not going to take you long to figure that out. And it's a great way to get into audiobooks too, I think, because it's only three hours, so if you have a road trip, you know, you could listen and you're through it before you know it.

ANNE: Before you get out of the state.

ERIN: Exactly.

ANNE: You know, hearing you talk about audiobooks, I'm refiltering my experience walking through airports and I'll see the pilots, you know, walking so confidently with their luggage. I always want to see what their luggage looks like 'cause clearly y'all know what you're doing.


ANNE: But when they have airpods in and I wonder like, oh, I wonder what they're listening to. The sci-fi/fantasy recommendation they got from their colleague is not ... That just wasn't on my radar of assumptions.


ANNE: But that fills me with joy.

ERIN: I definitely have history and you know, some great nonfiction ready too because there's definitely a high percentage of pilots who are really into history, you know, military history and there's some really great stuff out there for that too.

ANNE: Oh, I wanna ... I wanna ask you about your favorites! But we're going to get to that. You know we're going to get to that.


ERIN: [LAUGHS] Okay. I do think ... I have to, you know, give credit to my parents. My mom is a huge reader, so I definitely inherited that from her and you know, in high school, she handed me ... I don't know if she handed me, but she let me read Anne McCaffrey, which might have been a little bit mature for me at the time, but she was a little bit of a trekkie and I definitely get my sci-fi/fantasy love from her, and then my dad has never been a huge reader, but what he did hand me, a leadership book about Abraham Lincoln and The Killer Angels. He's not always about quantity, but I think he is about quality, so I can't thank them enough for handing me the right things at the right time, even if they weren't thinking about it.

ANNE: Now you're raising a daughter. She's three. I imagine that you're invested in her finding this love of reading that you've found at an early age. What are you hoping to teach her about books and reading?

ERIN: One, I have a hard time not buying her books anytime we go anywhere. [BOTH LAUGH] So ... especially, you know any used bookstore, it's hard not to walk in and peruse through the kids books. I think my parents never limited my reading options, so I think just putting books in her hands and letting her wander around libraries and bookstores and finding what she wants because I hope our kids always surprise us with what they're interested in and I hope to learn something from her too in her reading journey.

ANNE: Ah, well she's so lucky – she's so lucky to have you.

ERIN: I'm almost worried that there's going to be too many books that I want her to read that I might overwhelm her. [BOTH LAUGH] I'm already starting to look at middle grade books, and I'm like no, it's too soon. She's only three. [LAUGHS] So I have to – I have to hold back a little bit. I haven't read The Penderwicks yet. You know, I've read Nevermoor. There's just too many good books and I have to pace myself a little bit. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: It's nice to have something to look forward to.

ERIN: Oh my goodness, yeah.

ANNE: I love what you said about how much fun it can be to discover that she's interested in books that you've never dreamed she'd be interested in. I love discovering that about, you know, people I … Like, good friends and family members of mine, like really? That is a book you love?


ERIN: Yeah.

ANNE: I never would have guessed, and how much fun to have conversations like that and discover those things about your own kid.

ERIN: For sure.

ANNE: Alright, Erin, it's time to get into the details of the books you do love. Erin, how did you choose these favorites?

ERIN: I really love variety. Like I said I want to be well read so I can connect with a lot of people and I have a lot of interest so I wanted to make sure my top three genres was sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, and nonfiction, and I know nonfiction's not really a genre, but … [LAUGHS]

ANNE: We'll count it here.

ERIN: Yeah, yeah. So that's how I picked my three. The three I picked, I do think Sabriel, I've read it twice now and I read it a few years ago but I did try to be a little bit more recent in my three books I did pick.

ANNE: Okay, well I can't wait to hear about them. Tell me about the first book you love.

ERIN: I love Sabriel by Garth Nix. It is a YA fantasy. Part of it takes place in the real world as we know it, and part of it takes place in a fantasy world, and the main character Sabriel, she's a teenager, but she's also the daughter of a necromancer, so he banishes the dead back to wherever they go. I love it because it's YA, but the teenage character is not super angsty. She isn't in her own head all the time, and she's a woman of action. She's faced with a problem and she does her best to tackle those problems head on in a logical manner. I like characters that are logical.

ANNE: Oh, interesting. Tell me more about that. I imagine you discovered that by reading about characters who were not.

ERIN: Yes. The trope of a character not sharing information just drives me bonkers. Like why would you not tell someone a vital piece of information, and I think it's a plot point that it takes me right out of a story when I hear it. [LAUGHS] I read an interview with Andy Weir after he wrote The Martian. The person asked if he had heard from any astronauts, if they liked the book, and he said he got really great feedback from them and they wanted to know how he wrote the way an astronaut thinks so well, and he was such a big NASA nerd and he read so much about interviews with the different astronauts that he got it perfectly that when they're faced with a problem or a group of problems, they literally just pick the first worse one and just focus on that one. So they're very focused and they take care of that one and they move on to the next one, and I think you can see that in The Martian when he's, okay, I have to get food, and then I have to make sure I'm safe and then now I'm going to try to get contact with Earth. But I think that way of thinking really resonates with me and it makes me connect with the characters more because they're thinking logically and moving through the story as best they can.


ANNE: Erin, what does this book represent in your reading life? I know you want to choose favorites that recommended specific aspects of what you love. What is Sabriel to you here?

ERIN: It's good versus evil. It's loyalty and family. It's an escape. I think the last few years we could all appreciate that you just want to get out of the real world sometimes and into a fantasy land where things are a little more black and white and someone you can root for. A young woman who's on a mission that she's not going to give up.

ANNE: Uh, that is definitely a mood for 2022, 2021, 2020.

ERIN: Definitely. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: As long as we need. I know you know this, but ugh, you are not alone in really gravitating towards those stories in these times, and I'm glad books can be here for us in that way. Erin, what did you choose for the next book you love?

ERIN: My second book's nonfiction. The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley. Matt Ridley was an editor of The Economist for a few years. He's got a science background and this book is kind of an economics look at where humanities come in the last, you know, couple hundred years. I read it the middle of 2020 and it was a great book to read when you kind of needed a big picture of, you know, 2020, everything shut down. We don't know what's happening. We don't know how bad Covid is. You can read a book that says over the last couple years of humanity, we're happier. We're healthier. We're freer than humanities ever been. So it was a great book for me.

It's got a lot of hard data and it's data that's over time. He does talk a little bit about climate change. He has a lot of great things to say about vaccines and about science and where it's come and where we're going and I think it made 2020 a little easier to get through because it gave me a bigger picture and hard numbers that I could look at and say okay, this is the truth. We can get through this.


ANNE: Well this book came out almost ten years prior to you picking it up. Do you remember what drove you to it and .. Maybe [LAUGHS] drove you toward it sounds a little dire, but do you remember how you came upon it in 2020?

ERIN: I liked dabbling in those economic books that like to, you know, explain things. You know I've read the Freakonomics books. I've read The Undercover Economist. Yeah, so I feel like those books always scratch that itch of explaining why things are the way they are to me. Again, going back to just logical reasons for things and I like understanding things better. They mostly have a bigger picture than our day to day lives of getting Covid tests back or can the kid go to school? So [LAUGHS] it helps me step back a little bit and have a little bit more perspective on life.

ANNE: We began by talking about how you connected with others through reading, especially on the job, as you interact with people who sometimes have very strong opinions and I'm just listening to you describe this book and thinking through, like what can be controversial? What can be connection points? Is that a coincidence?

ERIN: I don't think so. I'm definitely a bridge builder. I have such short interactions with people that I want to give that little bit of their day where they feel understood and known for who they are. Working for the airline industry, when things are going good, everyone's anonymous. If we get you where you need to go on time, have a nice day as you walk out the door, but there's often days where it's bad weather or coronavirus is wreaking havoc on everything so there's not enough people to fly and then people don't get to their holidays or their daughter's wedding or [LAUGHS] their cruise and it's a total meltdown and you're seeing people sometimes on their worse days, and so just knowing that I can give a little bit of grace in those situations helps me be, not just a better pilot, but a better person.

ANNE: So you're not beating anybody over the head with a book, metaphorically or literally, I hope, Erin.

ERIN: I hope not. [BOTH LAUGH] I don't know, I do love Murderbot a lot. [BOTH LAUGH] There are some books it's hard to not gush about and my husband will definitely roll his eyes a few times during this podcast [LAUGHS] as I mention Murderbot way too many times, but … [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Erin, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?


ERIN: Okay so for my last favorite book, it's a mystery, it's The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton. It's a mystery, but it's got some of that speculative fiction in there as well and I know it's a pretty controversial book. Loved and hated, but you know, I'm a huge fan of Agatha Christie. I love Louise Penny. I think you introduced me to Louise Penny and I've read all of those. A classic mystery that's unputdownable is always great, but I also love that genre with the twists, so it's a mystery but you're jumping characters, don't know who to trust. You're not sure where it's going to go, so it adds to that mystery and keeps you guessing because you can't trust anything. So I really enjoyed that about the book. A little bit of a sinister feel to some of the characters. I don't love horror, but a good sinister character definitely adds some spice to the book.

ANNE: Okay, so this represents your love for the mystery genre, but it's also a time loop story, and so as much as it has classic tropes, it's really playing with them in a way that you found really compelling it sounds like.

ERIN: For sure.

ANNE: Excellent. Erin, tell me about a book that wasn't right for you. I think your actual words were majorly disliked.

ERIN: Majorly disliked and I felt really bad. I brought this book to my book club when we lived near Washington, D.C. and it's Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. I picked this one up also because of Books on the Nightstand because of their love for everything Marilynne Robinson. It just – I need a plot. It was a combination of little to no plot and the quiet characters living their lives that wasn't enough to grab me. I think I made it about a hundred pages in and I gave up, which I felt really bad for the book club that I didn't finish the book that I suggested. [BOTH LAUGH]

A book doesn't have to have a super intricate plot for me to like it. I really love Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and its plot is not very clear until she wraps it up at the end. It's more character driven, but it has super interesting characters that you really want to get to know and it's in an interesting world, so I think I have to have two of the three of those things. A moving plot, interesting characters, in an interesting world and if you don't have two of those things I can't do it. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay, you know what's interesting though is I hear what you're saying about the overarching plot not being clear in Becky Chambers, but there's also lots of small missions that have narrative drive throughout that book, so things are happening.

ERIN: That's true. It's a little episodic.


ANNE: Quiet characters aren't just living. Yeah, they're quiet.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: Okay, you want some action.

ERIN: Definitely.

ANNE: Good to know. Erin, what are you reading right now?

ERIN: I recently read All Blood Runs Red by Tom Clavin. It's a nonfiction history book about a man named Eugene Bullard who was the first African American fighter pilot and he actually flew in World War I. I have to read any history book about pilots and flying. It's required. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I definitely had to pick it up, and it's a story we don't really hear a whole lot about I think initially because in the United States, people didn't want anyone to know that there was a Black man flying airplanes in Europe during World War I so that was, you know, the first problem. But Eugene Bullard was a young man who stowed away on a ship and made it over to England in the nineteen aughts I believe. He lived an amazing life. He was a boxer. He joined the French Foreign Legion and ended up flying 25 missions in World War I. Owned a Jazz club in Paris.

ANNE: Oh. I haven't read this book, but I remember – I remember hearing about it when it came out a couple years ago, a reviewer pointing out just incredibly [LAUGHS] strange parallels between his life and the movie Casablanca.

ERIN: Oh, right. Yeah, and just a man who lived an amazing life but ends up working you know, odd jobs, blue collar jobs in New York City at the end of his life and no one knows what he's done in his life and it's partly heartbreaking, but inspiring at the same time and if you're interested in pilots and flying, it's a great book for that too. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Now if it's required to your constitution to read these pilot nonfiction books and memoirs, there are so many of them!

ERIN: There are, and I'm looking at my shelves. I have a ton on my shelves already and it's ... Yeah, it's hard to say no. Anytime I see a new one pop up [BOTH LAUGH] at the bookstore. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Oh, I love to see that shelf. I'm glad that there's such a thing in your home. Erin, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?


ERIN: I would love to have one of those books that grabs me that I want to sit down and read the paper version and put down my earbuds. [LAUGHS] Part of my problem is being distracted by the phone, the tablet, the kid. To sit down and read a book that she can see me doing that instead of looking at my phone.

ANNE: Ohhh.

ERIN: Or having my earbuds in I think is an example I would love to set for her. Just having less distraction in my life that I could focus on a great book, not needing to multitask every now and then.

ANNE: That is a really good reason to want to read a print book because that does matter.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: There are a million reasons to say whatever format works for you works for you and that's great, but I hadn't considered that angle. That makes a lot of sense.

Okay, the books you love: Sabriel by Garth Nix, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley, and then The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, which you deliberately chose these picks because you wanted to represent the three genres that you read the most …

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: And that is mystery, nonfiction, which you said isn't really a genre but you love to read [ERIN LAUGHS] like memoir and historical nonfiction, and then science fiction and fantasy. And then you need books that have a plot that moves, that has interesting characters, and that has an interesting story world and you've got to have two out of the three, or it's not going to work for you.

ERIN: Yes.

ANNE: And what I'm thinking of is you've talked repeatedly about how important audiobooks are to your life and your reading life and so I definitely want to choose titles that are good on audio, but also if they would be good on the page that could really be wonderful.

ERIN: Definitely a bonus.


ANNE: Got some ideas. Let's see how this goes. The first book that I really like for you, I don't know, I feel like I might be about to tell a lawyer joke to a lawyer. [ERIN LAUGHS] And I don't want to do that. Here, let me – let me just dive in from the beginning. Not a slow build. It's Hell of a Book by Jason Mott. Have you read this one yet?


ANNE: This is the 2021 National Book Award winner. It was in the Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide. It won the National Book Award. Now it's getting so much well earned attention, but I don't know that the review or readers are really talking about the thing that just pulled it to mind for you aside from it being an amazing book that's narrated by JD Jackson who's just incredible and also by Ronald Peet who I hadn't listened to before. The book is narrated by an author, a Black author, who is on a cross country book tour, who's promoting his bestselling novel called Hell of a Book, so it's kind of fun and meta in that way, and there's all kinds of jokes, like it's a hell of a book! Like that's what …


ANNE: You say whenever you're talking to, you know, easy line for the publicist ..

ERIN: Definitely.

ANNE: Is it, you know, absolutely titled. [ERIN LAUGHS] But for reasons I really don’t remember, the author in this book – I don't think we ever find out his name – goes on a little rant I believe more than once about talking to pilots. He's always traveling. [ERIN LAUGHS] Pilots are always traveling. He's talking to pilots and he says the thing about meeting pilots is you always know there's a pilot … A is a pilot because a pilot cannot resist telling you that pilot is a pilot, and so he knows he's known tons of pilots because they always say oh, and I fly. [ERIN LAUGHS] I'm a pilot. It's my ... [ERIN LAUGHS] And I just thought that was a little fun, you might get a kick out of that aspect of the book.

ERIN: There's humor in truth. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: So the book does have a sense of humor and it starts with this madcap race. He has gotten himself into a bit of trouble in a hotel room and ends up like streaking through the hall and down the elevator and through the lobby, butt naked, and he, like to ID himself to the hotel clerk, he's like look, I just really need you to let me back into my room ... No, obviously, where would I put my drivers license? I don't have it. I don't have ID, but I'm on the cover of this magazine [ERIN LAUGHS] that you handily have displayed, like will this work? This is my face. Can you tell? So it starts out with this tone where you think it's going to be a capper. It is not that at all, and so while it is ... I mean, this has a moving plot, but it also does that thing that you said you really enjoy with The 7 /2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, there is so much going on that is not straight forward that is really intriguing. So let's back up.

So the story unfolds in several different strands, and the first does feature a Black author on a book tour for Hell of a Book, his bestselling novel. But no matter what city he goes to, someone wants him, as a Black author, to weigh in on the most recent tragic police shooting on the news, and he's like there's always a new one, in every city I'm in, so the story feels like it never changes, and yet it's always different and they always want to know what I think. But he's afraid of saying the wrong thing. Not just because he wants to keep the focus on his book sales, although he says in the book that he does, but also because he has these daydreams that are strangely vivid. He's had them for years. Because of these daydreams, he can't always tell the difference between imagination and reality and he doesn't really trust himself


ERIN: Oh, interesting.

ANNE: And one day at breakfast a young Black boy slips into the seat across from him at a hotel breakfast. This kid, who the author comes to call The Kid, is pretty sure that he's invisible to everyone but the author. And then meanwhile there's another storyline with a young Black boy who goes by Soot, rural North Carolina, where the author is from. But these strands come together in a really unexpected, but really powerful way, so the story moves. And the story world that Jason Mott builds is just incredible.

Oh! We were at the Bookmarks Literary Festival together – I forgot about this – in North Carolina back in September and hearing him talk about the origin story for this book was so [LAUGHS] funny. He said that for years, he thought that he wanted to write about book tour because it's so weird, it's like this place out of time and it's not real life and he just thought it would make a fascinating book, and his agent said no. No, it wouldn't. [ERIN LAUGHS] Don't write that.

But he said he'd been kind of toying it with for many years. He wanted to write about an author on book tour, but then with events in the United States, the continued tragic police shootings in which Black boys are unjustly mur – you know, it kept being a new story, and he finally realized like oh, my mad cap book about book tour and this story's so close to my heart, like those things go together, and his agent said yeah, they do. So that is Hell of a Book by Jason Mott. How does that sound?


ERIN: That sounds great.

ANNE: We're not going to do a sci-fi fantasy. But there's a lot of crossover appeal with this historical novel that is fiction but is based on a setting straight out of history and that is the German siege of Leningrad in World War II. It is action-packed. You have a plot that moves, like this book is less than 300 pages. So much story is packed into such a small pace. It has really interesting characters that will grab your heart you’ll really wanna care about. You'll want to see them come out okay and it has an interesting and also I think for someone who reads historical nonfiction so often, I think it's really important that it's a storyworld that feels very real and is from what I've accurately drawn. And that book is City of Thieves by David Benioff.

So this book is set in '41 during the siege of Leningrad when they were seeking as I understand it the Germans were seeking to starve out the citizens who were left in the country. So this is a war story and it's hard in many of the ways that war stories can be, but the main driving plot in this story is that when one man is caught out after curfew instead of getting similarly murdered as one might expect, instead he and his friend are given the opportunity to save their own lives by doing something that sounds absolutely ridiculous. The colonel is about to get married and he needs a dozen eggs for his daughter's wedding cake and if these two men can secure them, he will spare their lives. The city is being starved out, unbelievable deprivation is happening. They're cut off from all supplies, but they have to do the impossible and find these dozen eggs.

World War II, historical fiction. This novel is ... Mm, more than ten, less than 20 years old, so it was written well before ... We have a lot of World War II fiction fatigued among readers right now, but I'd like to think that this one gets points for being published a while ago now. It's incredibly compelling. It's suspenseful. So much action in such a small number of pages, but also it has a sense of humor that I think based on what you've enjoyed I think you would find welcome. How does that sound?

ERIN: Oh, definitely. That sounds great.

ANNE: I think I wanna get you a stylish mystery that kinda plays with the genre.

ERIN: I'm always in for that. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay. This is a 2021 release. It's The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz. Have you read this? Do you know it?


ERIN: I actually just finished it.

ANNE: [GASPS] Oh! Did you really?


ANNE: Okay, was it – was it a good pick for you?

ERIN: It was pretty good. I feel like I'm more of an Anthony Horowitz Magpie Murders twist.

ANNE: I finally read those this year so I know what you're talking about.

ERIN: Yeah. It was good, but not my favorite.

ANNE: Something that I liked about that one for you is that a knowledge of Marilynne Robinson's works was incredibly important to …

ERIN: Oh, yeah.

ANNE: Fully getting the story, and I thought that was kind of fun. I'm not completely convinced this is the right book for you, but I think it might – it might be a little more reflective than I'm expecting, but it's not, I wouldn't call it leisurely. It is philosophical, though I think. This story's called The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano. It came out last Spring. It's by Donna Freitas.

This story's about a woman, her name as you may have imagined, is Rose. She falls in love. She gets married. They're living happily ever after, but the choice of whether or not to have children becomes a point of contention between them because they were both sure that they never wanted children. She had her own reasons. He had his and they were on the same page, but over time after they got married, he starts to change his mind and at a certain point he decides he does actually want to have a baby.

I'm not sure why. I feel like this is a theme that I read a lot in 2020 and 2021. I'm not sure what's happening in publishing right now or in our collective minds that this is a story that readers are drawn to, but I did really like the way it was explored here because I mean, what it does do is explore the various ramifications, and you see nine different versions of her life based on what she decides to do and how that comes to pass and how she ends up feeling about it, which even though in some versions you can imagine that she made the choice to go ahead and some versions she didn't, the details change so much about how she feels about the outcome …


ERIN: Okay.

ANNE: And how she feels about the people involved in enacting that outcome. The story does move, but obviously you're reading different versions of what are to a large degree the same story over and over again. It is intricately plotted. You'll really be compelled to like pay attention to the details and the moments when things shift, and while it is very reflective, the story does move along and the writing style is engaging that has energy to it. How do you feel about that, Erin?

ERIN: It sounds interesting. I think I'm definitely going to have to pick it up and give it a try.

ANNE: I am really curious to hear what you think 'cause it could be – it could be a real zinger. It could not, but I'm thinking that the best books we ... Like the most memorable reading experiences are often the ones that surprise us.

ERIN: Yeah.

ANNE: You know, where it feels like a book came out of left field if we're like oh, I never read anything like that, but wow. That was amazing.

ERIN: Definitely.

ANNE: Okay, that was The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas. I have to tell you, I really wanted to recommend like some Neal Stephenson but I figure that you've read it all.

ERIN: I haven't Neal Stephenson. My husband is a huge fan, and we have all of them. [LAUGHS] So I haven't read them yet, but they're on my shelf.

ANNE: Seriously? [ERIN LAUGHS] I was gonna go with Cryptonomicon. I don't know what your husband thinks you should begin with because if he has any opinions like you do about Murderbot, then maybe he's telling you what title to pick up next, but I mean, this book is now 20+ years old and it would be so easy for it to be extremely dated by this point

ERIN: Yeah.


ANNE: But it's just incredible how fresh it feels even after all these years. I don't know how you feel about long books and this is certainly a long one. I mean, your audiobook is 40+ hours. It's narrated by William Dufris.

ERIN: Oh my gosh. [LAUGHS] Definitely listening to that one on two times speed. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I mean, I don't know how you get your audiobooks but if you're paying for those credits, like wow. Like you get a lot of bang for your buck. When it comes together, it really comes together. There's also a military angle here that I think could appeal to you. There's a mystery. There's lots of characters, big cast here, with 1100 pages. They're really well developed. I think it would definitely meet your interesting characters criteria.

ERIN: Okay.

ANNE: And he explores all these little tangents in like minute detail and I think the reader in you that really loves logic and for things to be accurate would really enjoy following those threads.

ERIN: That sounds good too. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay. Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson. Okay, so of the books we talked about today, they were Hell of a Book by Jason Mott, City of Thieves by David Benioff, The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas, and the Neal Stephenson. I'm so surprised you haven't read. Oh, you'll have to tell me.

ERIN: [LAUGHS] I'm embarrassed. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Don't be embarrassed. There's nothing to be embarrassed about. [ERIN LAUGHS] But I'm glad I didn't skip over it. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. Of those books, what do you think you'll read next?

ERIN: I think I'm definitely going to get Hell of a Book on audio right now. I'll get the Cryptonomicon off the shelf [ANNE LAUGHS] like my husband's been telling me to do and set that one out so I can start it, the paper version.

ANNE: Well I'm thrilled to hear it and I can't wait to hear what you think. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.

ERIN: Ah, it was a dream come true to be on your podcast.



ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Erin, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. Find Erin on Instagram and over on Goodreads and as usual, the roundup of all of the titles we discussed today along with those links is over at

Connect with us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext, and follow me at annebogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L.

If you love our podcast, leaving us a review on Apple Podcasts brings a smile to our faces and helps others discover our show!

Make sure you hear from us each week by signing up for our newsletter at

Make sure you’re following our show in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and more. And tune in next week, when I’ll be sharing readerly recommendations with a unique reading duo!

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:

• Ta-Nehisi Coates (Try Between the World and Me)
• Milton Friedman (Try Capitalism and Freedom)
• The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells (#1 All Systems Red) (audio version)
Anne McCaffrey (Try Dragonflight)
The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara
The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy by
Jeanne Birdsall
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend
Sabriel by Garth Nix
The Martian by Andy Weir
The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves by Matt Ridley
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford
The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
• Agatha Christie (Try Death on the Nile)
• Louise Penny (Try the Chief Inspector Gamache series, #1 Still Life)
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
All Blood Runs Red: The Legendary Life of Eugene Bullard–Boxer, Pilot, Soldier, Spy by Tom Clavin and Phil Keith
Hell of a Book by Jason Mott (audio version narrated by JD Jackson & Ronald Peet)
City of Thieves by David Benioff
The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
The Nine Lives of Rose Napolitano by Donna Freitas
Cryptonomicon by Neil Stephenson (audio version)

Also mentioned:

WSIRN Ep 161: Books on the Nightstand and on your wishlist
Bookmarks Festival of Books & Authors

more posts you might enjoy


Leave A Comment
  1. BarbN says:

    Hi- loved this episode. I also read Murderbot (ebook and audio) multiple times last year, so I feel like Erin and I are reading twins. And Becky Chambers and Sabriel!! I haven’t read Cryptnomicon in a long time, but when I did, I loved it, so that is a good rec. I was so invested in wanting more Murderbot that I tried another Martha Wells series, the Raksura, which I loved. They’re slower-paced than Murderbot, so I wouldn’t go straight from one to the other, but they’re definitely worth reading. And also I couldn’t help wondering how Erin felt about Dear Edward if she’s read it, but might be a little too close to home if she hasn’t. A couple of other random ideas: How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu and The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJKlune. Thanks for the insights into pilot life, I was fascinated.

  2. Shelli says:

    Great episode! But it just hurts my heart when my favorite lifetime book is the guest’s pick that they didn’t like. (Gilead) I totally get her reasons though.

    • Aimee says:

      Shelli, I’m super curious to learn what makes Gilead your favorite lifetime book? I, like Erin, wanted to LOVE it. But completely felt the same way (including stopping reading it after about 100 pages. So I’d love to hear a different perspective!!

      • Shelli says:

        Well I know each person finds favorites for personal reasons and I know that certainly true for me with this book. I grew up a preacher’s kid in the mid-west and I think Marilyn’s beautiful character development captures the many nuances of that life perfectly, along with the theological struggles, parent/child relationships especially not really grasping who our fathers really are, and how each generation effects the next. I related on every level of this book and that’s probably why it’s a favorite.

        • Anne says:

          I don’t want to give anything away but: don’t miss next week’s episode! The timing of running Erin and next week’s guests back-to-back was completely serendipitous and, I think, completely perfect. (And yes, this is a Marilynne Robinson-related comment. 🙂 )

  3. Shana says:

    I loved this episode and really related to Erin’s reading tastes. I haven’t read Cryptonomicon, but given her background, I’d recommend Seven Eves by Neal Stephenson. I was sad to hear about Gilead because I bought it based on the hype, I guess, but I feel the same way about plot. I can’t make it through books that just happen to people. I need agency and action.

  4. Adrienne says:

    Great episode! I loved hearing how Erin uses books to start conversations. Books are a great bridge because you can ask almost anyone what they are currently reading, and they will have a response. I think Erin might like “The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August” by Claire North. I read it a couple of years ago and it remains one of the most clever, thought-provoking books I have ever read. I haven’t read The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle (yet), but I think these two books may have similar structure and styles.
    Happy Reading!

  5. Deidre (Dee) Burwell says:

    Loved this latest WSIRN#139 because a favorite title of mine was mentioned. For years I have pressed City of Thieves and The Madonna’s of Leningrad to my book loving friends. These books are meant to be to be read together. Hope you agree.


  6. Beverly says:

    I loved this episode and have read many of Erin’s favorites. Two books by Tom Miller that I think Erin would enjoy are The Philosopher’s Flight (book #1) and the Philosopher’s War (book #2). They’re fantasy/alternate history of the USA in the 19th century and they’re so full of action, agency, and uh, philosophy–including showing sexism if it were reversed. 🙂 Unusual but really good! I haven’t tried the audio versions of these books, so I can’t comment on those.

  7. Austin says:

    I just finished reading Network Effect by Martha Wells and just wanted to come add another comment of deep love for Murderbot. I have been telling anyone who might remotely be interested to read the Murderbot diaries, so I understand.

    A snarky sentient being who is trying to find their purpose while involved in high-action plots and saving the lives of their pesky humans? Yes please.

  8. Meg says:

    Erin and Anne-great episode! Thanks!
    Erin-not sure if you’ll see this comment but have you read “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham? It’s the only pilot book I’ve read and it’s a doozy IMO! No shortage of adventure and beautiful prose!

  9. Gina says:

    Based on this podcast I started the Murderbot series on audio and love it! I found Becky Chambers this way too—love these quirky sci-fi books by women! Erin, you are a successful marketer!

  10. cj says:

    I also started the Murderbot Diaries series because of this podcast and absolutely loved it! Listened on audio and then immediately started re-reading the books in print after I finished.

    I only wish they were longer, with more descriptive detail. Like, how the heck does a clothing recycler work? Does it make wovens or knits? Both? How does it create the sealable pockets? I need to know. 😆

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