Readers, today’s episode covers a lot of literary ground, from adaptations of Jane Austen to cultural immersion via cookbooks.
Christina Griffin loves atmospheric reads, brilliant endings, and characters she can connect with emotionally. She’s looking for contemporary books that are fun to read, and she particularly loves diving into an author’s backlist. With my help today, Christina’s hoping to discover a new series she can slowly devour.
When she’s not reading for personal enjoyment, Christina teaches English at the University of Virginia, where she specializes in 19th century literature. When you hear her describe her class on Austen adaptations, I think you’ll understand why I wish I could take it myself!
I hope you enjoy our conversation—and that it inspires you to find some perfect-for-you reads you’ve been missing out on.
Photo credit Dan Addison, University of Virginia
Cristina: I think that’s a scholarly tic that you, you know [ANNE LAUGHS] you discover something and then you just have to become your own personal expert on it.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 298.
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 today’s show we talk about the love of reading across genres and diving into an author’s backlist. If you’re trying to expand your reading life, keeping a book journal is one of my most recommended ways to capture what you’ve read, what you want to read, and other important info to support your reading delight.
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Readers, if you’ve been a part of our What Should I Read Next community for any amount of time, you’re likely aware that Jane Austen holds a special place in my heart—but I think today’s conversation with professional Janeite Cristina Griffin holds loads of appeal for all kinds of readers. Cristina teaches English at the University of Virginia, where she specializes in 19th century literature, and teaches students everyday that these old texts where women are wearing corsets and following antiquated social norms actually have a ton to say about our contemporary world—and when you hear her describe her class on Austen adaptations, I think you’ll understand why I wish I could take it myself!
But we don’t neglect Cristina’s personal reading life today, though. On her own time, Cristina loves atmospheric reads, brilliant endings, and characters she connects with emotionally. She’d like me to help her find contemporary books that are FUN to read, and as a voracious backlist reader, she’d especially love a new series she can slowly devour.
I hope you enjoy our conversation—and that it inspires you to find some perfect-for-you reads you’ve been missing out on.
Let’s get to it.
Cristina, welcome to the show.
CRISTINA: Thanks so much for having me. I never say no to a chance to talk about books.
ANNE: Would you tell our listeners a little about yourself?
CRISTINA: So, I am a born and bred Californian, but I live in Charlottesville, Virginia now. Moved here about five years ago when my husband and I started jobs at the University of Virginia.
ANNE: So an academic job is like a unicorn as I understand it. You both got jobs from across the country at the same university?
CRISTINA: [LAUGHS] We did.
ANNE: And at UVA of all places.
CRISTINA: We did. It was not an easy feat to make happen, but we both have managed to forge careers in academia in very different fields. I’m an assistant professor in English now. He is a biomedical engineer, so we like to say that we both think each other is the most brilliant person because we don’t speak each other’s language. [ANNE LAUGHS] Although I have to say, he’s one of the most brilliant close readers I know. Sometimes to a point that annoys me. Like you shouldn’t be so good at my thing when I don’t remember what mitochondria is.
So, it doesn’t seem quite fair, but [BOTH LAUGH] Charlottesville is a wonderful wedding destination. It is so ridiculous to say now but I think when you grow up in California, you think California’s the only place. It’s one of the downsides to California is you get like [ANNE LAUGHS] California tunnel vision. When we moved to Virginia, I realized wow, Virginia’s really beautiful. But kinda had to go oh well, duh. So many other places are really beautiful. It’s not just California.
ANNE: Now something I love about UVA aside from the gorgeous campus, it’s wonderful, and there’s that amazing sandwich shop like a block away. It has such a rich literary tradition.
ANNE: We always like to pop into the Rotunda and see all the books on display from UVA alums, and it’s appeared in literature like a surprising number of instances, like it means something specific to drop that a character went to UVA. I think in The other Black Girl, Nella went to UVA and that was an important part of her story.
CRISTINA: Oh, that is in my TBR. Truly just checked it out from the library two days ago, so very excited.
ANNE: Well it’s by a fictional UVA alum, so.
CRISTINA: Yeah, UVA does have, I think, a rich and complicated history and so it makes it a rife ground for real and literary characters.
ANNE: I can see that. I also was delighted to read in your submission that you take on a big challenge with cookbooks that I had been contemplating, especially in these pandemic times but haven’t actually done, would you tell me a little more about that?
CRISTINA: Sure. So, I didn’t do it this year because I just had a baby a couple months ago and I decided to give myself a break [LAUGHS] but for the past couple of years I have picked one cookbook and cooked my way through the entirety of the book, every single recipe from January 1st to December 31st. And it’s been so much fun. I’ve really loved it. The first book I did it with was Pati Jinich’s Pati’s Mexican Table, and I grew up in San Diego. My mother is Cuban American. It was so much fun to take Latin flavors that I have a lot of familiarity with, but fully immerse myself in Pati’s world for a full year, and I learned a lot. My children and husband ate food from all across Mexico for a whole year and yeah. It was just a total joy.
And then I did it again with Ottolenghi Simple. It’s a real challenge to cook every single recipe in a book because they’re inevitably going to be ones you know you probably won’t like, but sometimes you discover that then you don’t think you’ll like, you do. You know the adult Green Eggs and Ham moment. It kinda makes meal planning a little bit easier because you know, well, got a lot of recipes to cook so what am I going to cook this week? [ANNE LAUGHS] Just open up the book and pick a few. I’m looking forward to doing it again next year when my baby’s a little older and my hands are a little freer.
ANNE: Do you have your cookbook picked already?
CRISTINA: I don’t have one picked yet. I have really enjoyed doing regional cuisine because then we can spend the year talking about that place and immersing the kids in that culture via food.
ANNE: Well, I almost cooked my way through Barefoot Contessa At Home and it’s funny how you read a cookbook differently when you’re contemplating making not just the recipes that jump out at you but every single recipe and I don’t think I’d ever realized how much seafood was in Ina Garten’s cookbook until I started thinking about it in that way. And I have a friend who cooks through one of the Smitten Kitchen cookbooks. She said was a lot more desserts than they usually eat. Not a complaint, just a statement of fact.
CRISTINA: I make a lot of Ina and Deb recipes, and I can imagine both of those being fantastic years.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Now Cristina, something that you were very clear about is that you have two reading lives, which is something that I find really relatable.
CRISTINA: I do often think of myself as having two reading lives. A professional reading life and a personal reading life, and I like to think about them as operating like a Venn diagram. There’s certain books that I read, you know, I’m reading these for work. They count as work. And certain books that feel like they’re not at all work, but there’s also a lot of overlap and osmosis between the two. There have been many times I read a book on the for fun side, but I’ve ended up teaching it later. I’ve stopped almost being able to draw any sort of harsh line between those two, which is actually a lot more fun. I think reading without boundaries, reading without categories is just a much more fun way to live one’s life.
ANNE: How did you find your way to your academic speciality?
CRISTINA: I was that kid who was ten years old and reading Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice, and looking back on it, I realized that I was understanding, you know, 10% of it as a child, [LAUGHS] but I think I always loved the language of the 19th century, and that is what I specialized and I specialize in 19th century British and Anglophone literature. I also have specialities in gender and sexuality studies and in, I like to say the long history of the novel because that means I can teach any novel from any time and I can count it as my speciality. [BOTH LAUGH]
But yeah, I’ve always loved novels. I think I gravitated really early on to 19th century literature. When I was in grad school, I just really found my home there. I like to think of the 19th century as a century where so much of what we in some cases take for granted today emerged. So, so many issues about gender, race, so many institutions like banks and capitalism that control our lives were forming their foundations in such important ways in the 19th century. So I think we can learn a lot about our own moment by immersing ourselves in these old worlds.
ANNE: I’m very interested in hearing about the Jane Austen class that you teach. It sounds like so much fun. I want to sign up immediately. Listeners, you’ll understand in just a moment, but we are just coming off our annual Austen in August tradition in the Modern Mrs Darcy book club, and this year the book we’re reading is Northanger Abbey, a gothic novel, and we’ve really enjoyed getting into not just Northanger Abbey itself and the contemporary book we paired it with, which was Elizabeth Brooks’s The Whispering House, but really getting into the conventions of the genre and also Jane Austen’s reading life and personal reading habits as a result, and I was delighted to discover that you have a strong connection to gothic literature as part of your job at UVA.
CRISTINA: I do. Yes, I curate a digital companion to UVA’s gothic archive. Here at UVA we have the world’s largest collection of gothic fiction called The Sadleir-Black collection and I teach a class in which I teach students to pick a book from the gothic archive that has almost no digital footprint. There are a handful of gothic books that we all might be similar with, Frankestein, or a parody of a gothic novel like Austen’s brilliant Northanger Abbey, but there were thousands of gothic novels published that have almost no trace of them online nowadays. So in this class, my students pick a little known gothic novel, become an expert on it, and we produce materials that they then publish online in this digital companion to make gothic literature more accessible. More like it was when Austen was reading it.
ANNE: How does UVA happen to have such a collection?
CRISTINA: Well, it’s a long story that I’m not the best at telling. [LAUGHS] The special collections curator are much better at telling it, but essentially, there were a couple of collections that were donated to the University, and it has been carefully grown. I mean, I think with Edgar Allan Poe having spent time at UVA, we just have a nice gothic atmosphere, so [LAUGHS] I like to think that that enables us to keep the collection growing.
ANNE: Cristina, what I really want to find now is a polite way of saying, what’s the point ’cause I’m sure there is one [CRISTINA LAUGHS] and I can’t wait to hear, but what are your students surprised to discover when they dig into these old and very specific kinds of books that don’t exist online? There are thousands of them. I imagine that you have some that are really exciting to dig in, and that I imagine some are much more reluctant, but what do they come away from having learned and having experienced?
CRISTINA: One of the things that they get to learn and experience is that you can become an expert in something by doing the work. By gaining the research skills and digging in to an archive and following rabbit holes and trails through tons of old books, you can amass knowledge about the past that was otherwise inaccessible, and I think for these 18 to 22 year olds to discover that they can become an expert on something by putting in the hours is just a wonderful, wonderful discovery. Sometimes they also discover that somes of these books are really bad. [BOTH LAUGH] They’re really not great, and I don’t … I don’t normally call books bad. I actually kinda have a moral code against [LAUGHS] calling books bad because yeah, I don’t like to moralize books like that, but even I must admit some of these books are real trash. [LAUGHS] And yet we can still find cultural value in them because they tell us about what the publishing world was like and what some people like to read, and that has value even if we don’t read it and think, wow this is wonderful literature.
ANNE: Oh, okay, so doing what I do, I hear from so many readers and industry people saying will you believe what they publish these days?
CRISTINA: Oh yeah.
ANNE: And somewhat reassuring to know that that is not new either.
CRISTINA: And has never been new. There has always been someone making a hierarchy of books and saying this is good and this is not as good, but we’re going to publish all of it.
ANNE: Now Cristina, I’m dying to know more about the class I want to sign up for right away. Would you tell me about Austen and Adaptation?
CRISTINA: Absolutely. So I teach this class called Austen and Adaptation, I subtitle it “Pride and Prejudice and then some.” We spend the entire semester reading Pride and Prejudice and then immersing ourselves in the long 200+ year history of Pride and Prejudice. So we really spend the entire semester on one novel and its many iterations. It is so much fun. It’s also a wonderful, like rigorous opportunity to talk about Austen. I always tell students that if Austen isn’t already your favorite author, you will either love her or hate her by the end because you will have spent many, many months with her.
One of my favorite things about Jane Austen is that she has been able to be morphed into so many different genres. So we get to take a genre tour, you know, and watch a Bollywood film and read a variety of contemporary versions of Pride and Prejudice. I love that we get to take a cultural tour, and we are no longer stuck in regency England, but we can move outward to Pakistan or India. Jane Austen taking flight is the best kind of Austen we can have.
ANNE: Tell me about one of your favorite Austen adaptations.
CRISTINA: One of my favorites that I recently read, I think this was last year, Janice Hadlow’s The Other Bennet Sister. I haven’t taught it. I don’t know if I will. It’s quite long, but it’s Mary’s untold story. I think there are actually several Mary untold stories that have been written but I thought that Hadlow absolutely nailed Mary’s narrative. She made her such a full fledged character and really Mary’s the character that I think Austen does the least justice to. I was swept away by Hadlow’s novel and couldn’t believe how much I cared about Mary by the end. I think I’ll never teach Pride and Prejudice the same way again.
ANNE: And you couldn’t have known this but I somehow ended up with two copies of this book but I haven’t opened either one yet. I may have just bumped it up my list.
CRISTINA: With Austen, it is a case of too many adaptations, too little time. One can’t only spend one’s days reading Austen adaptations. You have to pepper other things, and so I do tend to spread that. I’m actually just now reading Death Comes to Pemberley, and one of my dear friends said how on earth have you waited this long [ANNE LAUGHS] to read this novel? And I said I know. it is terrible and also sorta necessary I think to spread out your Austen adaptations. But that’s not what I did for my students. They read a bunch of them all at once, so [BOTH LAUGH] they do as I say not as I do. Yes.
ANNE: Cristina, you specialize in 19th century British and Anglophone literature, but that’s not the only thing that makes up your personal reading life. I’d love to hear about how you consciously cultivate something that makes room for more than just Austen and her contemporaries.
CRISTINA: I very deliberately read as many non-19th century books as I can, both because it reminds me why I love the literature that I get to teach, and also it’s nice to not only be reading for work all the time. So yeah, I read a lot for pleasure. I read across forms. I’ve always got an audiobook, something on my Kindle, something in paperback. At least one of each going at once. I really do try to read across genre as much as possible. I used to be much more of a literary fiction reader for the most part, and then in the last few years I’ve really cultivated a reading life that is porous to letting in historical fiction and romance and maybe a thriller here and there. I’m not much of a fantasy or a sci-fi reader but if someone tells me that a book is good, I am open to trying it. Why not?
ANNE: What prompted you to expand your literary circles?
CRISTINA: The main genre that kinda opened my eyes to my own tunnel vision was romance. A couple years ago a friend and colleague of mine wrote a really brilliant article for the Los Angeles Review of Books about her experience discovering and reading romance novels, and I read her piece, thought to myself, I have never read romance novel, and I have all these stereotypes about romance novels. The stereotypes that one might expect, that they’re like vapid and silly and I would not be interested in them. And then realized I have these stereotypes and I have never actually picked up, like tried a true romance novel.
I read her article and realized I was probably very, very wrong. What a wonderful discovery to be wrong about something that can open your mind. [LAUGHS] I contacted her to find out what book I should start with. She suggested a Tessa Dare novel, The Duchess Deal. I read it and my eyes were opened, and I had no idea that this world of romance could be so progressive and smart and engaging. In that novel, one of the characters has a lot of war scars, and the book is about his embodiment and his sexuality and how he can have a non-normative body and still experience a sexuality that is like vibrant and full.
I was just blown away, and then so I read the rest of the series that novel is apart of, and then I read every other novel that Tessa Dare has ever written [ANNE LAUGHS] and then I just kept moving through the rank of historical romance to contemporary romance, and I guess now I’m a romance reader amongst other genres. And I just love how wrong I was I guess. You know, I love being proven wrong that my stereotypes were ill founded and I don’t want that to happen again. I say I’m not much of a fantasy reader, but you know, I will read a fantasy if it comes my way and who knows, maybe one day I will discover that that’s one of my main genres, and that would be wonderful too.
ANNE: So you had that experience with romance and you thought what other books am I missing out on?
CRISTINA: That is precisely the case.
ANNE: Is that your typical MO to read a book by an author who’s new to you, love it, and then want to plow through their entire catalog?
CRISTINA: It is. I sometimes pace myself and pepper their works, you know, across several months, and sometimes I just plow through the whole backlist. And with Tessa Dare, I just plowed through the whole backlist in like a matter of weeks. I think that’s a scholarly tic that you, you know, [ANNE LAUGHS] you discover something and then you just have to become your own personal expert on it. So I do love to do that. I don’t do it with everyone but I’m a big backlist reader.
ANNE: So knowing that you love to be a completist…
CRISTINA: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: For the authors you pick up, does that affect what you do choose to read? Because you said that you have enjoyed Tessa Dare and Courtney Milan, I just read my first Courtney Milan book recent … Like in the past month.
CRISTINA: Well let me tell you, when you get to The Countess Conspiracy, your life will just be better. [ANNE LAUGHS] The Countess Conspiracy is so wonderful. Actually earlier this year when the pandemic was making me feel sad, I was like oh, I’m going to pick that book up again and I read it again and I was just happier. You know, just genuinely made me happier. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: What a lovely feeling to know you have authors you can turn to and you know, your life will be better after a few chapters of that book. But if I went into my first Courtney Milan novel saying if I’d like this, I’m going to read them all, I don’t know if I would have picked up the first one. ‘Cause I don’t know how many she’s written, but it is a lot of books. A lot, a lot. 20, 30, 60.
CRISTINA: If I do like an author’s books then yeah, I’ve just signed up to read five, ten, 49 more books, but I see that as, you know, the glorious burden of the reading life. But in same ways that the same with caring and loving about Jane Austen, right? Like there are always going to be more adaptations and not just of Pride and Prejudice but of her other novels as well, so signing up to read Jane Austen means five, ten, or 49 more books [LAUGHS] that can follow as well.
ANNE: And look at you. You dealt with this problem by creating a class so you have to read these adaptations and watch them, too, because it is your job.
CRISTINA: It’s my job. It’s a really hard life, but it is my job and I will do it for the students. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Out of a sense of duty.
ANNE: Obligation to the younger generation.
CRISTINA: Well, I did end up putting a regency romance into that class after reading a bunch of them and realizing how indebted that historical romance genre was to Jane Austen.
ANNE: So this is a living curriculum.
CRISTINA: So this is a living curriculum, absolutely.
ANNE: What did you slide in?
CRISTINA: I have taught Olivia Waite’s The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics, which is a fantastic female/female regency romance novel. Waite actually Zoomed in and visited my class when I taught it last year and ….
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun.
CRISTINA: Yeah, it was really wonderful I think for the students to get hear directly from her about the process of writing, and for that novel, because it’s about a queer realtionship in the regency period, it’s such a wonderful way in which the students got to see historical novels that have arisen indebted to the regency time period but also the untold narratives this brilliant genre of romance gets to unearth that Austen did not unearth.
ANNE: I mean, I would imagine especially with younger students that they have a lot of preconceptions about what the regency period is like both in literature and in people’s everyday lives, but something that romance does really well is challenge the norms.
CRISTINA: Romance challenges anyone’s preconceptions as it did mine and 19th century literature does the exact same. Most of my students enter the classroom thinking that their books are going to be stodgy and boring. They are pleasantly surprised.
ANNE: I love the word stodgy.
CRISTINA: It’s a very Austenian word. [ANNE LAUGHS] There’s always a stodgy character in an Austen book.
ANNE: Well, Cristina, taking all that into consideration, I can’t wait to hear more about what you’ve chosen as your favorites. Are there any retellings in the bunch?
CRISTINA: There are not. [LAUGHS] I had kinda a code by which I picked my favorites. No books that I’ve taught professionally or that are in the Austen catalog ended up in there.
ANNE: Well let’s go for it.
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ANNE: 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. Now what was the code? How did you choose these?
CRISTINA: So I chose books that I read during 2020, all of them I read after the pandemic started and all of them that made my life better. I felt my life enriched or happier, time well spent away from pandemic living and living in these novel worlds. I also deliberately picked books that went across genres, since I’ve been trying to read books from a variety of genres and they were also all books that when I finished them I admired the well executed, satisfying novel endings that the authors had achieved. I think a well finished novel is very, very difficult. I can still like a book when the ending doesn’t satisfy, but when it does, it’s extra wonderful.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to dive in. Cristina, tell me about the first book you loved.
CRISTINA: So the first book that I picked is Kate Quinn’s The Huntress. I hadn’t read much historical fiction for a few months when I picked up The Huntress, and it got me right back in to the genre. I loved this World War II historical fiction. I was so invested in all three of the storylines as we follow Nina, who’s a Soviet Union nightbomber, we have our story with Ian Graham, who’s a British war correspondent, and then Jordan, whose story takes place a little bit after World War II in Boston. I felt so deeply invested in all three of them. I love that Quinn wove the storylines together so we get to see their relationships unfolding. We got this wonderful mystery at the heart of the novel that she slowly detangles. It was one of those books that was so compulsively readable I just couldn’t put it down.
I actually listened to this on audio, and it’s narrated by Saskia Maarleveld who I think is just such a narrating genius. I have read now several novels that she has narrated precisely because she narrated them, so I guess I’m a backlist audio book narrator reader as well. [BOTH LAUGH] I will sign up for every Saskia Maarleveld narrated book as well as every Kate Quinn novel. I have since reading The Huntress, read The Alice Network and The Rose Code. Yeah, I just really love that she immerses us in the historical world so completely and also I love that her prose is so riveting. I just find Quinn to be such a phenomenal constructor of sentences. I really appreciate beautiful prose.
ANNE: Having listened to Saskia Maarleveld narrate, I listened to The Rose Code as well most recently, and The Huntress on audio. I completely understand, and I believe she also narrated a fun science fictiony Jane Austen adaptation a few years ago.
CRISTINA: Did she?
ANNE: Uh, The Jane Austen Project?
CRISTINA: If she did, I do not know about it but will be immediately researching it and looking it up. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That’s by Kathleen Flynn, and it was in the Summer Reading Guide for Modern Mrs Darcy maybe like 2017 or 2018.
CRISTINA: I don’t know if you noticed in The Rose Code that we get a teeny tiny little cameo of Ian Graham from The Huntress. A journalist, a war correspondent shows up and his name is Ian Graham. I don’t know Kate Quinn, but I think that that’s the Ian Graham from The Huntress. I love it when authors do that for us, when they give us historical worlds that percolate into their neighborhoring novels. Just love those little Easter eggs that all authors leave for us.
ANNE: I hear you. I love it when authors do that. I mean, it’s fun for the reader, but I also love to picture them at their desk thinking is anybody going to pick up on this?
ANNE: Cristina, what did you choose for your second loved title?
CRISTINA: I picked Casey McQuiston’s Red, White, & Royal Blue. Several students recommended this contemporary romance to me.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun.
CRISTINA: Yes. They kept recommending it to me, and I eventually just had to pick it up, and I was just immediately taken in by Alex and Henry’s relationship. I found the characters fun and captivating. I thought that McQuiston did such a wonderful job of exploring sexual identity and experience, particularly for Alex as he realizes that he’s bisexual throughout the course of the novel. It’s one of those books that I felt like that’s something so meaningful and important to say but is also just buckets of fun to read and I think [ANNE LAUGHS] what is better, you know, than a book that is meaningful and enjoyable all at once? I’ve been telling everybody and their mother to read this book and I really do believe that if every single person were to read Red, White, & Royal Blue the world would be a better place because romance is just that powerful at helping us to understand a variety of people’s experiences.
ANNE: Cristina, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
CRISTINA: So the last one I picked is Peter Heller’s The River, and I absolutely have you to thank for this recommendation, Anne, because …
ANNE: Oh! Well I’m so happy.
CRISTINA: Yes. I heard you recommend it on the podcast and it sounded fascinating. It also sounded like something I’d never read. I like to call it a wilderness thriller that feels like the appropriate genre for it. As Wynn and Jack, the two main characters spend the book canoeing in Northern Canada and discovering a mystery afoot when a fire breaks out. I could not believe how much I absolutely loved The River. I actually haven’t read anything else by Peter Heller before or since. I was taken in by Wynn and Jack as individuals, but I especially loved their friendship. We just got this deep dive into this intimate male friendship that I found so moving and touching.
You know, in some ways, I couldn’t even tell you what like the mystery was. I don’t remember. Like the twists and the turns of the plot of that book, I don’t totally remember them, but I remember the way I felt about reading Winn and Jack and their friendship. Like a big plot event happens in the book that I will not say aloud, I like doubled over and gasped aloud. Like I’m not kinda that emotional reader. It got under my skin, and it’s really stayed with me, plus I really went in for Heller’s atmospheric writing. I just felt like I was there, I was immersed in, you know, the world of Northern Canadian rivers where I’ve never visited, but I just really felt that place and I liked to be fully immersed in a world when I’m reading, and I admire an author who connects you that so well.
ANNE: Well I’m so glad you enjoyed it. If you wanted to continue the journey, his new book that just came out called The Guide picks up a few years later when Jack is back in Colorado.
CRISTINA: I saw that and I cannot wait.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. Actually, I think my husband Will has convinced me to pick up Kook almost next. It’s his nonfiction. We just got back from the beach. We were talking about surfing while we were there. I said something like that looks really hard, and he said you have to read Kook. [CRISTINA LAUGHS] That’s what it’s all about. [LAUGHS] Midlife crises, let’s learn to surf. I just got the email an hour ago. It’s waiting for me at the library.
CRISTINA: Oh, fun.
ANNE: Now Cristina, I’m so curious to hear more about a book that was not right for you.
CRISTINA: So the book I have chosen that was not right for me and I suspect this might be a little bit of an unpopular opinion because it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list for a while is Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library. I probably shouldn’t have finished the book [ANNE LAUGHS] ’cause I was not enjoying it partway through. I’m not good at not finishing books though, I will say. And I found the central idea of the novel interesting, this idea that the main character Nora Seed is given this unique opportunity to explore parallel lives that she might have lived based on different choices she might have made. I found that premise really interesting, but in reading the novel where she actually gets to explore these different parallel lives, I just felt absolutely no investment in Nora. I did not care ‒ this is a terrible thing to say ‒ but I did not care if Nora lived or died in the novel [LAUGHS] and the plot device was interesting, but the plot device took over more of the novel than I wanted it to and my character investment was just really, really low. I really did not like it. [ANNE LAUGHS]
But I also thought you know, Matt Haig is well known as a good writer. I’ve actually had ‒ I’ve had How to Stop Time on my TBR for a long time and one of my best friends said well you probably shouldn’t read it if you really didn’t like The Midnight Library and I said no, I think that’s why I have to read it because you know, what if it was just this one novel. So I read it and I actually really enjoyed it so [LAUGHS] so there you go. The Midnight Library wasn’t for me, but How to Stop Time which actually explores a similar idea, convulating multiple lives through its protagonist Tom, I felt much more invested in Tom as a character. That book really worked for me, so I’m glad that I didn’t let the most recent Matt Haig novel stop me from reading more of his because How To Stop Time was a really enjoyable experience.
ANNE: I can hear your hesitation. You feared it would be an unpopular opinion, but it’s never just you, and also just because a book is a best seller doesn’t mean it’s right for you.
CRISTINA: I’m always telling my students I don’t really need them to like all of the books we read. It’s nice when they like some of the books that we read, but they don’t need to. I’m often telling them my goal is that these books feel a feeling and hate is also a feeling, so [LAUGHS] I’m actually I guess okay with reading a book that I really don’t like because it did make me feel something. [LAUGHS] That’s important too.
ANNE: I’ve been trying to figure out how to elegantly and concisely say put down the book if it’s not right for you, but that doesn’t mean … I mean, a lot of times readers will say it is put down a book if you don’t like it, and I don’t feel that way at all, but I don’t want to get to the end of a book and regret that I spent time with it.
ANNE: And I can dislike something and still appreciate it and think about it and be glad I had the experience, but feeling like oh, I want my hours back. [CRISTINA LAUGHS] That’s not good.
CRISTINA: Yeah, no one wants to feel that way.
ANNE: Cristina, what have you been reading lately?
CRISTINA: I have been reading a variety of things lately, but at this exact moment I am about to …
ANNE: Oh, yes please. We want the real snapshot.
CRISTINA: [LAUGHS] Yes, the real snapshot. I am currently I think two thirds of the way through Taylor Jenkins Reid’s, one of her older books, After I Do. I read Malibu Rising when it came out this summer, and I read Daisy Jones and the Six maybe a year ago. I really loved Malibu Rising. I thought she did such a phenomenal job in giving us this complicated family unit, and so I decided that I had to read all of TJR’s backlist and I don’t normally read a backlist in publication order, but I decided to do it for Taylor Jenkins Reid since I read her most two most recent publications, so I read Forever, Interrupted a couple weeks ago. I’m currently in the midst of After I Do and I’m liking it so far. It’s quite enjoyable. It’s quite different, I think, than her more recent work.
ANNE: I’ve said this before but I can’t resist saying it again, yes, I’m fascinated by the trajectory of her career, like was there a meeting? Was there a white board? [CRISTINA LAUGHS] Because One True Loves and Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and then today’s … I mean …
CRISTINA: I am very excited to get to the middle.
ANNE: It’s different.
CRISTINA: Yes. And even Daisy Jones and the Six and Malibu Rising, there are some similarities with their complicated variety of characters in a wide cast, but yeah, she’s got very wide range. I’d say actually [LAUGHS] if there’s one thing I find really consistent across her body of work, or at least the ones I’ve read so far, almost four of them, so far all of them have taken place in Los Angeles. My husband and I lived in Los Angeles for a decade before moving to Charlottesville, and I think anytime you read books that are set in a place you know so well, you have a really high standard for how that author is going to immerse you, you know, accurately in that world. And for me, Taylor Jenkins Reid absolutely gets Los Angeles completely correct. I think she lives there too actually. Especially in Malibu Rising. I read that book and thought she has absolutely delivered on her portrait of Los Angeles, and in that book, LA is really, it’s almost another character in the book. That’s been an interesting thing to find, as a consistency so far across her texts.
ANNE: I have a little PSA for you that may or may not be necessary. She wrote a short story like almost three years ago now. It’s called Evidence of the Affair, but you may not know about. You won’t see it in your bookstore because it is an Amazon original. I really like her writing but I did not know this existed until Shannan, from our team said let me tell you about another short book that I loved that I think you may enjoy. And she specifically recommended the audiobook that has Julia Whelan and George Newbern and a couple others, but it’s epistolary and it starts when a young woman who’s just discovered her husband is having an affair sits down to write the letter to the spouse of the woman her husband is having an affair with …
CRISTINA: Oh wow.
ANNE: Because she’s found his letters and so they start writing back and forth. It’s just an hour and a half. You could read it really fast.
CRISTINA: Oh, I will absolutely do that, and Julia Whelan is another favorite narrator for me, so I will definitely check out the audio version of that.
ANNE: I know you have those completist tendencies, so I just wanted to make sure you could actually do it.
CRISTINA: I do, and that actually wasn’t on my TJR list, so I will check it out. It’s both a wonderful and a sad event when you’ve read everything by an author.
ANNE: Ah, that’s so true.
CRISTINA: I’m actually in that moment now. One of the other books I’m very actively reading right now is Fredrik Backman’s My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.
ANNE: Oh no, does that mean that you’ll be done?
CRISTINA: Yes. This is my last Backman until he publishes more so dear Fredrik Backman, please hurry up and write more. I need more of your books.
ANNE: Well the bad news is his next book isn’t out yet but the good news is it’s out in Sweden and it is co … It has to be coming soon to the U.S.
CRISTINA: I wish I read Swedish, but I don’t. [BOTH LAUGH] His first novel of mine was Beartown and I really enjoyed being fully immersed in this whole town, you know, invested in so many of the different characters and then I just proceeded to read all of this works. Not in any particular order and I’ve actually really paced myself with his books knowing that how much I love them, I didn’t want to breeze through all of them, so it’s really been maybe a year and a half since I read Beartown, and then I’ve been pacing myself through the rest, and I’ve now read every novella and book of essays and I just love his curmudgeon [ANNE LAUGHS] underdog characters.
I also love to think about Fredrik Backman as an inheritor actually of Jane Austen because I think Backman is one of the best writers using omniscient narration in the contemporary moment. Austen is just so smart with her omniscient narrator who’s diving deep into characters’ minds and emotions, but also making sardonic comments about the society. I think Backman, he does it very differently, but he also very deftly handles this incredible omniscient narrator in each of his books who can give us such an intimate look at the characters but also be such a wry interpreter of the society that he’s discussing.
ANNE: When I think of Jane Austen’s legacy today, Fredrik Backman is not the first place my mind goes.
ANNE: So I really appreciate you drawing those lines. [CRISTINA LAUGHS] Oh, Cristina. Okay. So you deliberately read widely across a variety of genres. You have lots of interests. You read in lots of formats which means oh golly, we have to narrow it somehow, so please tell me what are you on the hunt for in your reading life right now?
CRISTINA: Especially now that I’m about to finish my last Fredrik Backman novel, I would love to discover some more contemporary authors who I can fully immerse myself in whatever they’ve most recently published, but also begin the journey of reading their backlist, whether quickly or more slowly. In a similar vein, I also really enjoy, and we haven’t really talked about this, but I really enjoy reading series. I guess for the same reason that I like being immersed in an author’s world or in an author’s mind, a series, whether it’s a sequential series where each book, you know, follows directly on from the previous one or a more parallel series where the books are just all kinda operating in the same universe, they just give you those opportunities for atmospheric immersion that I really enjoy, and I guess if you have any other Austen adaptations that you think I absolutely need to read, my students might thank you for those too. [BOTH LAUGH]
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ANNE: Cristina, the books you loved were The Huntress by Kate Quinn, Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, and The River by Peter Heller. Not for you The Midnight Library by Matt Haig because as you confessed you just didn’t care if the protagonist lived or died, and I don’t think that’s terrible to say about a fictional character. About someone in your real life, yeah, but about a fictional character, I think that’s okay, but I think it sounds so awful to you because you love characters that feel like living, breathing people. Does that sound right?
ANNE: You’ll read more Matt Haig. You really enjoyed How To Stop Time, but that book didn’t do it for you, and you are on the hunt for modern authors where you could read their whole catalog. Have you read any Lucy Parker?
CRISTINA: I have a copy of one of her books. Act Like It? Is that a title of one of her novels? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Mmhmm. That’s book one. When you get up to book four, you have The Austen Playbook.
ANNE: Which revolves around a Jane Austen based TV adaptation that’s filmed on an English estate. It brings you back to the London theater scene, but this time it’s not the stage, it’s a live action TV murder mystery. I just want to put that on your radar. It’s a lovely series. You don’t need to read them in order, but you know how this works with a romance, like you will get some character development but you can just jump right in book four. It will stand alone. You will be fine. I feel like that has some of the things you’re looking for. It’s a fun series. It’s a romance. It has that Austen adaptation angle, but I don’t feel like we need to camp out on that one. Knowing you read widely and also you’re very self aware of your reading life, so first of all, I don’t think you would consider any of these books a waste of time as we discussed, but where they are in your priority list, I’m just gonna put them out there on your radar ’cause I don’t know that they would be there otherwise, and we’ll see how they strike you.
CRISTINA: Sounds good.
ANNE: Okay. So we’re going to start with a fantasy as we were talking, I thought wouldn’t it be fun if I could find the right one but that might talk more mental cog turning [CRISTINA LAUGHS] than I have today, but yeah, I’ve got a book about dragons for you.
ANNE: That is a Pride and Prejudice retelling.
CRISTINA: I’m ready for it.
ANNE: Okay. So this book is called Heartstone. It’s by Elle Katharine White, and I have to tell you this is not a book I would have picked up based on the cover because there’s a big ol’ dragon. It’s not the kind of thing that says Anne, this has your name written all over it, but when I was at the completely charming bookstore The Storied Shop in Monroe, Georgia where I was supposed to go for Don’t Overthink It and I hope to get back to again, one of their booksellers described it as a completely faithful Pride and Prejudice retelling but with dragons, and I thought oh, I am just curious enough to want to pick that up immediately and see what on earth you are taking about, and actually I brought it home. One of my kids’ favorite babysitters was like oh, Heartstone! I love that! And I thought what?! [LAUGHS] Does everybody know about this but me?!
It hits all the familiar Pride and Prejudice beats and it adds many familiar fantasy elements like dragonriders and warrior women. It works. It’s really fun. I think it could be a change of pace that still feels really familiar to you, and also adds that layer of enjoyment like okay, which Austen character is this dragonrider? [CRISTINA LAUGHS] If you do really like this, this is book one of the Heartstone series. Two and three are called Dragonshadow and Flamebringer. This could be a lot of fun for you, and I don’t think it’s the kinda thing you would have reached out and picked off the shelf yourself.
CRISTINA: I have not read Heartstone. I have seen the cover and that’s about all I knew about it, and I actually did not know that it was the beginning of a series. So I’m excited. Pride and Prejudice with dragons. I mean, how inventive. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Now this isn’t precisely the phrasing you used, but I was going to call you a recovering literary fiction tunnel vision reader. [CRISTINA LAUGHS] But that is a genre you gravitate towards, and I know you don’t need any help tiptoeing towards the romance genre like you’ve told us you are thoroughly in that camp now. You consider yourself a romance reader, but knowing how much you did love literary fiction for so many years, and is it fair to say that you still really like many books in that genre?
CRISTINA: Absolutely. Still read a lot of literary fiction.
ANNE: I read a romance recently. I read it on audio. I wonder how much that affected my perception of the story, but what I loved about it was it combined two things I loved. Good literary novel and a really fun romance novel. And it just came out this summer. It’s called The View Was Exhausting. It’s by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta. It’s a Hollywood story about the movie business, and so of course much of the action takes place in New York and California. This is a fake relationship, but of course as so often happens in fake relationship scenarios…
CRISTINA: It’s going to become real.
ANNE: Oh, of course it is. [CRISTINA LAUGHS] Real, real feelings that everybody denies until they can’t do it anymore. This is about a British Indian actress, something that she gets into in the book is that she has such a hard time describing her identity and she just doesn’t even bother anymore ’cause people don’t understand that she was born in London. She is British, and her parents were born in India, and they are Indian, but what do you want from me? ‘Cause they always correct her when she says British and that’s a whole thing because this – this book as so many romance novels do, really gets into the identity of the two protagonists because they’re both saddled with all kinds of stuff they didn’t ask for but definitely have to live with.
She is named after her parents’ favorite poet, her name is Whitman, but she goes by Win, and she is an actor on the brink of irrevocable stardom but she just can’t quite get there ’cause her reputation hasn’t been so hot. There was an incident where she left some voicemails on an ex-boyfriend’s machine that got sold to the public ’cause he was worth breaking up with. We’ll just put it like that, but that dinged her reputation a pretty significant way and she’s been trying to build it back up ever since, which is why her agent saw her friendship with this, I think he’s a hotel mogel son. He’s loaded, trust fund, doesn’t need to work a day in his life, but really surprisingly nice guy that she hits it off with at a party and pretty soon her agent’s like um, could we like maybe get an arrangement going on ’cause it would be really good for both your public images ’cause apparently this is a thing that is done in Hollywood, or at least that is what they tell you in novels.
Fake relationship becomes real, jet setting around the world, grappling with identity, very real issues. I imagine you’re thinking like oh, I could totally see how that would fit into a romance novel, but there’s something about the tone and the telling and the writing style that feels like you’re in a different section of the bookstore, and that combination was so striking, like I almost never got over it in the course of reading the book, but not in a bad way or in a jarring way just a this is a different and fun and I like it. If you do listen to the audiobook, there’s lots of important phone calls and voicemails in the book and the way they do those is different than I’ve ever heard on an audiobook before and that’s … It was really fun. It was just different and fun which I know I’ve said those words repeatedly, but that’s how I feel about this book and I think that’s how you might feel about this book as well.
CRISTINA: That sounds really fascinating. I do love the way romance novels take tropes that we can think of as sorta one dimensional like the fake relationship, but actually turn it into something with a lot of depth and where we get a lot of mileage out of. All genres have tropes. Literary fiction can have its own tropes so [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m not an anti-trope reader. I like a good trope.
ANNE: I’m remembering in the article you referenced by your friend how she wrote like hello, the sonnet has guidelines too that can’t be broken …
ANNE: And nobody complains about how sonnets are predictable.
CRISTINA: Every form has its own form and has rules, and rules are meant to be bent, broken, reshaped, and sometimes stuck to, and that works too.
ANNE: I hear what you’re saying, and I remember reading in one review it might have been Kirkus, it said something like in the hands of less talented authors, this could have been [LAUGHS] this could have been shallow and cliched. It’s not. It’s gritty. It has depth. It has emotional resonance and nuance and I hope that’s what you find.
CRISTINA: That sounds like a lot of fun.
ANNE: Okay. We’ve got one more, and I don’t know which direction to go, Christina, so help me out. I’m debating between a contemporary author with a short but lovely catalog, or a spy thriller series. What are you up for?
CRISTINA: Ooh. Um.
ANNE: I think you’ll like them both but they’re very different.
CRISTINA: Yeah, since I can’t cheat and say both, I’m going to say contemporary author with the short backlist.
ANNE: You’ve chosen Mary Lawson. Have you read her?
CRISTINA: I have not.
ANNE: What Should I Read Next listeners may recognize Mary Lawson’s name because Will talked about Crow Lake on our recent team episode “best books of the summer so far” on What Should I Read Next and he picked up Crow Lake which is the story of an academic who comes from a small Canadian town and her leaving town under tragic circumstances and entering academia and staying there and mentoring her students is a huge part of that whole story. I don’t know if that would be too close to home. Is reading a book in set at a university [CRISTINA LAUGHS] setting, is that too much like work? Or is that a lot of fun? I don’t know. But if it sounds like fun. Crow Lake is the book for you, but Will finished it and he loved it. Said it was one of the best books he read this year and also that I would probably really enjoy it, and I absolutely did. I think it really reminded me most of Kent Krueger, like something like Ordinary Grace. Less so This Tender Land but it has that same tone.
When I found out that she had a new novel coming out, I wanted to read it immediately, and then it got longlisted for The Booker which was very exciting for Mary Lawson and I hope she finds lots of new readers, but also I was planning on buying it at the local bookstore on vacation and it was backordered ‘cause all the people reading The Booker list bought it so I had it get from my library on Kindle.
Crow Lake was her debut and it came out I think about 2010 to great critical acclaim but then she kinda sunk off the radar even though she’s had I believe two books come in the intervening time, which that’s a doable back list, like I am going to be a Mary Lawson completist [CRISTINA LAUGHS] I hope before the year is over. And I know that would be doable for you too if you really enjoyed this contemporary author who’s still putting out work but putting it out definitely at a pace that we know you could keep up with if you wanted to, Cristina. But her new book is called A Town Called Solace and it has three different narrators who are all facing their own kind of crisis and I feel like I need to give a [LAUGHS] a warning, a reassurance.
One of the narrators is a nine year old and I’m not often up for child narrators, but I really liked this one. I think because she wasn’t … She was wise beyond her years but she wasn’t precocious and that can get a little annoying for me. This story is set again in small town Canada, and in an afterward Mary Lawson says this is why I chose to set it here. This is what I kept the same. This is what I kept different. There’s a whole story how there’s no way Liam could have eaten those blueberries in season that he got from the market, but in that one scene he had to eat shriveled blueberries, no other fruit would do, so I loved that little glimpse into her process.
Oh, the action begins when a family’s in crisis. A 15 year old girl is missing and what we find out just in the opening pages is that she had always had a tumultuous relationship with her parents. Her mother especially, and she’d always threatened to run away and she never had, and then she did. And now the younger sister who’s been left behind is keeping vigil at the window, just waiting for her sister who she was close to, but she’s nine. Her older sister was 15. Close but not pretty to her secrets, she’s just waiting for her to come back. Then there’s a 30 something man named Liam who is mulling over his recently ended marriage. His is miserable. His marriage was miserable. It took him a long time to realize that and he is thinking it all through and really feeling like he is just made a big mess of things for the last 20 years, and finally there’s an elderly neighbor. These three are link in really significant ways that are interesting, but also just touching and tender, but this old neighbor, Mrs. Orchard, she is very close to Clara. Was once very close to Liam, and now she’s having heart problems and she’s needing to go into the hospital for a time, and Clara misses her and her sister desperately.
So you have these three distinct points of view that are circling the same story and I didn’t know where the story was going. I felt reading this particular Mary Lawson book, I just felt like I was in good hands, and she was going to tell me a story that meant something about people I cared about. It’s a short book. It’s just barely over 200 pages. You could read it quickly. It’s a novel where you’ll want to know what happens, but you won’t be like rushing through it at breakneck pace, like you might be if you chose the other door with the spy thriller on it. I think it’s a really nice blend of emotional and nuance, suspense and just …
You know what’s funny. Like we’ve been talking about romance novels today, and about how a good romance is so often not just about like the love between these two people, but about each of the individuals grappling with their own identity so that they can enter into a relationship with somebody else. And this is not by any means a romance novel, but watching especially Liam work through his stuff, you can hand the plot off to one of your favorite romance writers and they could turn it into a story based on what they’ve got to work with with this character, but watching each of these people work through their own things, especially Liam, is really interesting.
There’s some really fun side characters like the diner waitress who’s very slow to open to anyone who hasn’t lived there for thirty years and ah, there’s a carpenter in the story that Liam ends up assisting and he just ah, these little side characters don’t have huge roles in the story but they really just give it such humanity and character and humor I think you’re really going to like that.
CRISTINA: That sounds really, really wonderful. I love the way you just described this novel as that you feel like you’re in good hands. I think that’s a wonderful way to talk about that feeling you get when you’re reading and you think this author is taking care of me [LAUGHS] that they’re giving me something worthwhile and also fun or enjoyable or satisfying, and I can trust them. [LAUGHS] Got this like relationship, a readerly relationship built on trust. That’s a nice thing.
ANNE: Yes. Oh, and I think that’s such a good feeling. Like I don’t know where I’m going but I know that the author’s going to take me there. That’s A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. Cristina, of the many books we talked about today, Heartstone by Elle Katharine White, The View Was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements and Onjuli Datta, ooh that’s a husband and wife writing team. I didn’t tell you that I don’t think. I have no idea how they work that out, but I’m curious.
CRISTINA: [LAUGHS] Me too.
ANNE: And finally A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
CRISTINA: I will probably start with A Town Called Solace. I was perusing The Booker longlist recently, and I’ve only read a few of them on there and I was wondering where to start with the rest, so I think based on your recommendation, Mary Lawson’s A Town Called Solace is a perfect place to start, and then I can continue on with her backlist.
ANNE: Cristina, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
CRISTINA: Thank you so much for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Cristina, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/298 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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•The Other Bennet Sister by Janice Hadlow
•Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James
•The Duchess Deal by Tessa Dare
•Spindle Cove Series (#1 A Night to Remember) by Tessa Dare
•The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan
•The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
The Huntress by Kate Quinn (Audio narrated by Saskia Maarleveld)
•The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
•The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
•The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn (Audio narrated by Saskia Maarleveld)
Red, White and Royal Blue, by Casey McQuiston
The River by Peter Heller
•The Guide by Peter Heller
•Kook: What Surfing Taught Me About Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave by Peter Heller
△ The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
•How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
•After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Forever, Interrupted by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Evidence of the Affair by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman
•Beartown by Fredrik Backman
•The Austen Playbook (London Celebrities #4) by Lucy Parker (Act Like It #1)
•Heartstone by Elle Katharine White
•The View Was Exhausting by Mikaella Clements & Onjuli Datta
•Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
•A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson
•Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
•This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
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