On this week's episode of The Readers, Simon and I responded to a question that a listener named Sue posted on the podcast's group message board on Goodreads. Sue asked us how we find good books that don't get hyped and may be flying under the proverbial radar. In her question, Sue rightly points out that many book bloggers, have become the tools [my words, not hers] of the publishing industry and don't necessarily provide insight to the 'little' books out there.
We tossed around a few ideas--probably the sanest and least helpful of which was personal recommendations--but then Simon had had a brainstorm and decided he was going to start a Reading Revolution. He charged us all to go spend some time at the library and check out as many overlooked books as our lending limit allowed. In my case, the DC library system does not have a limit on how many books you can take out so I limited myself the number of books I could comfortably carry home.
As I combed through the shelves looking for books that might have flown under the radar three things occurred to me:
- With my penchant for older books, would I even know if a recent book had been neglected?
- What is the line between forgotten and overlooked? What if something came out two years ago, had a bit of a buzz, or at least enough initial interest that people checked it out, but then it had been ignored on the shelf for a couple of years? Is that forgotten, or overlooked?
- Without having read any of these books, how could I know if they were good books or merely good enough to find a publisher?
- I realized I wouldn't know they were gems until I tried reading them, so I just put that worry out of my mind.
- I skipped any author I had heard of or who had multiple titles on the shelf.
- I skipped any novel that was represented by more than one copy on the shelf.
- I looked for small imprints and presses.
- I looked at the date due stamps to figure when it was last checked out (if at all). This turned out to be an inexact science as the date due stickers could have been replaced and for some brilliant reason the DCPL has decided not to stamp books with due dates any more--they simply tell you what the due date is. I think this is lame for multiple reasons, but don't get me started.
- There are a lot of books with titles following this construction: THE [POSSESSIVE NOUN]'s NOUN such as: The Professor's Niece or The Dog-Groomer's Second Cousin, etc. I am wildly biased against such books. It just seems a little too cute, really lazy, and drafting off the success of other novels with similar titles.
- So many contemporary books--over the last ten years or so--seem to be really interested in giving the reader some sort of hook--and usually something of the earthshattering variety. Like clickbait on the internet where headlines are constructed to get people to click on fairly mundane stories. These are the anti-Pyms and anti-Brookners. They don't even equate to good plotting, they merely seem to suggest that every new author is the result of some MFA program that drills it into their students that there needs to be some crazy twist or no one will want to read the book.
- A lot of authors seem to be hell bent on providing Oprah-level "A-ha" moments.
- There is a fair amount of historical fiction out there. Part of me thinks that may be a function of the DC system catering to a non-fiction biased reading public, but part of me wondered if those kind of books require less imagination for authors. I'm not knocking historical fiction by any means, but it seemed like finding some historical character and coming up with some fantastic or dark or touching or unbelievable thing that could have happened to them in ye olde times might be easier than coming up with a story from whole cloth.
Remembrance of Things I Forgot by Bob Smith
Familiar by J. Robert Lennon
Winter Birds by Jim Grimsley
Wolves of the Crescent Moon by Yousef Al-Mohaimeed
Miss Fuller by April Bernard
I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti
The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Forgiven by Lawrence Osborne
Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff
Are any of these popular enough as to disqualify them from being under the radar?
P.S. While I was at the library I couldn't help picking up two Eric Ambler mysteries. I recently asked on Twitter for ideas about old fashioned mystery / spy novels and Ambler's name was mentioned. But those are too old and probably too popular to fit the #ReadingRevolution.